We Need Political Labels, and Battles

It's easy to make fun of No Labels; their empty pieties offer no real alternative to business as usual.


In his State of the Union address last week, President Obama demanded "a year of action."

But what we really need, Reps. Ami Bera, D-Calif., and Chris Gibson, R-N.Y., suggested in their SOTU response for the post-partisan, good-government group No Labels, is "a government of collaboration." Not in the Vichyite sense, don't worry—what No Labels proposes is a government with a "formula for how to get our leaders in Washington to start solving problems together again."

What that "formula" might be is never quite clear, but it starts with our representatives moving their flag pins to make room for new congressional "flair." Over 70 members showed up to the SOTU sporting NL's orange "Problem Solvers" pin. The standard, grammatically-challenged version says "Committed to Fix Not Fight," but, for a night on the town, congressmen can download sexier alternatives, like "Make Love, Not Gridlock" or "No More No."

Launched in 2010 to "move America from the old politics of point-scoring toward a new politics of problem-solving," No Labels is back, with a "three-year campaign to create a national strategic agenda" and a new book, No Labels: A Shared Vision for a Stronger America.

"The grownups show up," gushes one Amazon reviewer. But if these are the "grownups," why do they come wearing happy-face buttons and spouting get-along bromides that might have been drawn from a middle-school "No Putdowns" campaign? Does Congress really need its own anti-bullying movement?

In the book's introduction, No Labels co-chairman Jon Huntsman laments the partisan state of the State of the Union: "If we had a national strategic agenda this could all be different. The president and the leader of the opposition could meet before the State of the Union" and "get agreement on goals before the policy-making process starts."

This is how "grownups" are supposed to think about politics? When the old New York Sun started calling "good government" reformers "goo-goos" in the 1890s, they didn't know the half of it.

NL's "Problem-Solvers" blog features a Rubik's Cube logo; as long as we're living in the '80s, "where's the beef?" is a relevant question. What is this "national strategic agenda" anyway?

It involves agreement on "four essential goals": 1. 25 million new jobs; 2. Medicare and Social Security solvency; 3. balancing the budget; and 4. making America "energy self-sufficient."

The last item is mercantilist nonsense, but all four goals are already widely shared by pols. If we haven't achieved them, "it's not because the solutions aren't clear," No Labels argues, "but because we haven't focused our talents and resources." "No one ever actually tells us how they plan" to unite America, co-chairman Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., writes in the book's foreword, "in the pages ahead, you'll read about the 'how.'" Many platitudinous pixels later, the authors write that "there will be a lot of tough decisions ahead. … in this book, however, we have purposely stopped short of suggesting which tradeoffs will be needed." I see.

It's easy to make fun of No Labels; but it's also important, because their empty pieties offer no real alternative to business as usual.

Meanwhile, some of Congress's archest ideologues have proven themselves capable of cross-aisle cooperation on important issues like National Security Agency reform. Socialist Bernie Sanders of Vermont and libertarian Justin Amash, R-Mich., have joined to tackle the problem of the surveillance state without the benefit of a "Problem Solvers" pin—as have Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Ill., and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., cosponsors of the USA Freedom Act.

Solving that problem will take a fight, but there's no "fixing" without "fighting."