Have we been too hard on the centrists? I just spent most of a day with these creatures, learning their language of applause and mutual congratulation. By the end, I was shocked: They were on to something.
One year ago, when the group No Labels announced itself with an all-day congratulation-fest in New York, Politico’s Ben Smith asked whether it was basically a Democratic front group. The only Republicans onstage, he wrote, “had recently lost primary races.” Its too-cute logo, a Noah’s Ark of animals to compete with the donkey and the elephant, was ripped off from an independent designer. Its slogan—“Not Left. Not Right. Forward”— was ripped off from MSNBC, said Rush Limbaugh.
In 2011, political reporters knew No Labels as the guys who sent out “action” emails with no actual policy demands. This was odd. While FreedomWorks or MoveOn would call for a phone-melting campaign to pass a bill or block a nominee, No Labels cried only for people to get along. A July 14 email asked supporters to “call your representative and urge them to continue their work in Washington to find a bipartisan solution.” An Oct. 5 blast about the supercommittee called for politicians to “put their labels aside and work together for the good of the country.” Repeat, repeat, every few days.
But this was before Dec. 13, and the smoothly choreographed launch of an actual No Labels plan. “Make Congress Work!” (the exclamation point is theirs) is a list of 12 ideas, crowdsourced over a couple of months and debuted by a panel that included two actual elected Republicans, Rep. Tom Petri of Wisconsin and Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada. There are a few nonclunkers among those 12 ideas. Presidential appointments: Give them up-or-down votes within 90 days. Filibusters: If people are going to do it, make them stand up and empty their lungs out, Jimmy Stewart-style.
Both good ideas, both responses to actual legislative crises, both sort of picked up and then fumbled when Democrats had a larger Senate majority. Former Sen. Evan Bayh was milling around, posing for photos and chatting with No Label-ers (this term of art is also theirs). “We almost got this package of filibuster reforms passed before I left,” he said, not sounding particularly annoyed that he was now left to reform the body from the outside. “One of the more senior members of our caucus stood up and said, ‘Wait a minute, one day we’re going to be in the minority. We’re going to want a way to stop them [Republicans] some day.’ And I thought to myself, well, if we stop them when we have the majority, and they stop us when they have the majority, we stop each other and the country never moves forward.”
Up to now, there had been two knocks on No Labels. The first was Limbaugh’s: These guys were Democrats with new clip art. The second, made most recently by writer Mark Schmitt, is that No Labels is a vehicle for “centrist” lobbyists to pretend they’re not getting what they want. But there’s good reason to believe that the Label-istas are being sincere. That’s because the big thing they’re fighting against—the filibuster—is the tool that makes centrists so powerful. Without it, the House’s generous health care bill, with the public option, becomes law. With the filibuster in place, Ben Nelson needs to be bought off with a special Nebraska Medicaid exemption, and Joe Lieberman can demand that a Medicare buy-in be taken out.
Hold that up against the work of the other big centrist group, Americans Elect. The knock on No Labels has been that it’s amorphous. Americans Elect had an agenda. It would shovel money (don’t ask who’s donating) over to signature-gatherers, who would get ballot lines in 50 states, which would be hot and ready for a buzzy third-party ticket that would be selected during some kind of online convention.
The Americans Elect mission is perfectly engineered to get free media. It’s also gooey and pointless. Leave aside all of the reasons why third parties don’t win. The big problem is that they have nothing whatsoever to do with the problems that centrists have with Washington. Their problem is that Congress can’t do anything, that the incentives for last-minute brinkmanship are always high, and that anyone can stop a bill. In the Americans Elect dream scenario, when a Jon Huntsman/Joe Lieberman ticket takes the White House to demand entitlement cuts and tax hikes, what’s to prevent Congress from blocking nominees or throttling legislation? Easy answer: Nothing prevents that.
There’s dross and silliness in the “Make Congress Work!” agenda, too. Joe Lieberman made it to the launch right after a Christian Science Monitor breakfast, where he’d called Americans Elect “intriguing.” The idea Lieberman floated—prime minister’s question time-style rap sessions with the president—had once been broached by John McCain. “It would give us opportunities to say things we don't say,” said Lieberman, “like heya, heya or harrumph harrumph.” Rep. Bruce Braley of Iowa proudly announced that he grew up “in a No Labels household,” where he apparently learned to lay on pathos very thick.
“This whole No Labels conference should be dedicated to my friend Gabby Giffords,” he said. “If you had been there when she came back to the House, you’d have seen how partisanship melted away, replaced by friendship.” The big idea that came out of the Giffords shooting, the one that made it onto the No Labels 12? Making members of Congress sit next to each other on the House floor.
When Braley said that, I remembered the last time I’d been in the room No Labels had booked for the launch—the caucus room of the Cannon House Office Building. It was June 8, when a funfetti combo of right-wing groups launched Cut, Cap, Balance—a pledge to support a debt-limit hike only if it came with spending cuts, a spending cap, and a version of the Balanced Budget Amendment that demanded a supermajority for tax increases. They lost, but only after delaying a compromise on the debt and after getting most GOP presidential candidates to agree to their conditions.
That was the antithesis of what No Labels was trying to do. One of the 12 agenda items was a pledge never to sign pledges. But the groups behind Cut, Cap, Balance understood that power doesn’t flow out of a presidential campaign. It flows out of boring procedural decisions. Much of the time, activists realize that this stuff is boring, and they try to make bigger splashes with things, like online presidential conventions, that the news cycle can handle. So if 2012 is going to be a year of noisy centrists, it’s good to see them sweating the dull, important stuff.