President Barack Obama recently expressed his frustration at dysfunction in Washington.
“Congress doesn’t work the way it should. Issues are left untended. Folks are more interested in scoring political points than getting things done,” the president said. “And as mightily as I have struggled against that ... it still is broken.”
Washington being Washington, people here will disagree whether Obama has struggled against dysfunction or contributed to it.
But we’re not going there today.
Instead, this is about a new attempt to overcome the dysfunction, so that the next president might not only get elected as a “uniter” but govern as one, too. An organization called No Labels is leading the attempt. Its leaders are quick to say that its name does not mean they are without ideology or principle.
“We are not a centrist or a moderate group, and we are not pushing for bipartisanship for its own sake,” the group says.
The group’s co-chairs, that disclaimer notwithstanding, may strike party purists as suspiciously unreliable: Jon Huntsman, a Republican former governor of Utah who committed the heresy of serving in the Obama administration; and Joseph Lieberman, the former Connecticut senator who won re-election as an independent after losing a Democratic primary.
But the group also claims 70 adherents in Congress, half from each party, which Huntsman says makes No Labels the third-largest caucus on Capitol Hill, after the two party formations. The group’s adherents, according to its manifesto, are “liberals, conservatives and everyone in between who believes having principled and deeply held political beliefs does not require an all-or-nothing approach to governance.”
Rep. Tom Reed, a New York Republican, said members of Congress hear from many organizations that are narrowly focused on single issues.
“No Labels taps into the silent majority and organizes them,” Reed said. “That makes us a little more comfortable sticking our necks out.”
In five years, No Labels claims to have signed up a half-million supporters across the country and spawned student chapters on 100 college campuses. Now it is staking out a role in the presidential election process, deploying field organizers to primary states and inviting candidates to an October convention that will gather more than 1,000 undecided New Hampshire voters — the “most valuable resource” in the state, Huntsman said.
Its version of a platform is a “national strategic agenda” of four goals that polling identified as important to majorities across the political spectrum: creating 25 million net new jobs in the next decade, securing Medicare and Social Security for 75 years, balancing the federal budget by 2030 and achieving energy security by 2024.
It’s easy to be cynical about this. The goals may be easy to agree on in principle, but they are divisive as soon as you start talking about the how.
No Labels leaders don’t entirely disagree. “You can’t talk about energy very long without talking about climate,” Huntsman said. “You can’t talk about jobs very long without talking about immigration.” But in many ways, the process is the point. No Labels isn’t going to change many of the factors that are driving partisanship: a fractured media landscape, divisive redistricting, polarizing campaign finance rules and so on. It also dismisses as unlikely the emergence of a viable third-party candidate.
So the idea is to set in motion a mechanism that could generate results even in a partisan environment. Agreeing that the country should have strategic goals is a first step; for a newly elected president and Congress, coalescing around one or two of those goals could be the next. And the commitment to find a solution would force members to start talking across party lines.
Underlying all this is a conviction that most Americans would like to see an end to gridlock, just as most politicians would like to accomplish things. “In this case, good policy is good politics,” said Mack McClarty, a chief of staff in the Clinton White House who serves as a No Labels vice chair. “People want to see some measure of getting something done.”
And, Huntsman added, they won’t be satisfied with candidates promising airily to fix Washington. “No more of the rhetoric — we’ve heard that,” he said. “You’re going to have to tell us how you’re going to do it.”
Reed, the Republican representative from Corning, New York, said many legislators are “tired of not having results” and would gladly join in a process built around strategic goals.
“A lot of us came here to do stuff,” he said.
Fred Hiatt is The Washington Post’s editorial page editor.