On January 14, over a thousand so-called problem solvers gathered in Manhattan to fix American politics. At least, that’s what No Labels, a non-partisan, non-profit group headed by former Utah governor Jon Huntsman and Senator Joe Manchin (D., W.Va.), said they were doing. In fact, they modestly billed the spectacle as a “Meeting to Make America Work.”
Activists and students met at the Marriott Marquis in Times Square. While the festivities drew media attention and many attendees, the event also — surprise — drew a bit of ridicule. “No labels, no relevance,” pronounced the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin. Ron Fournier of National Journal wrote that the group may be more an indicator of general dissatisfaction than a serious political force, and that it “may not change Washington an iota.”
Indeed, at this juncture, with two years of groundwork, two semi-famous faces, and little else, the group is struggling to find its way out of a wilderness of irrelevance.
Still, the attendees seemed buoyed by optimism. The registration area was bedecked with banners showing the faces of American presidents (including Ronald Reagan and FDR), and audio speakers blasted mall-friendly pop tunes, including music by Bon Jovi and Rascal Flatts. “It’s a great day because we are all here together, do you agree?” asked Lisa Borders, the former president of the Atlanta city council and one of the group’s co-founders. The audience cheered — they agreed. Attendees were addressed as “citizen problem solvers” and “No-Labelers,” and also treated to the vocal stylings of Mary Anne and Abby Huntsman, two of Jon Huntsman’s daughters. “This just gives us hope,” said Mary Anne, beaming. (No news on whether the event gives hope to Michael Bloomberg — he’s been involved with No Labels in the past but didn’t make a cameo on Monday.) Conference workers clad in bright orange shirts labeled “Problem Solver” passed out small American flags for seated audience members to wave.
Attendees seemed particularly beguiled by Broadway star Deborah Cox’s performance of “No Labels Anthem,” a song written for the group by Akon and available for purchase at iTunes. The chorus goes:
He’s a Democrat
There’s a fight and a race who’s gonna win
Put your differences aside man if you can
’Cause there’s way too many people suffering
I wish they didn’t have no labels
There’d be more change with no labels
Later, a stream of co-founders (the group has ten, by my count) exhorted the crowd to keep up its good spirits and fight the good fight. Platitudes were indulged in and moods were ebullient. “We’re trying to advocate for the national interest,” said one. “The great thing about this election is that people heard your voice,” another added.
Andrew Tisch, one of the group’s co-founders, introduced Newark mayor and potential Democratic Senate candidate Cory Booker, unironically, as “a national treasure.” Nancy Jacobson, another co-founder, proclaimed that the group’s success has been unprecedented. “We are actually changing the culture in Washington, D.C.,” she proclaimed in a video played for attendees. “Nobody thought we could do it, but we already have.”
Despite Jacobson’s confidence, though, the jury’s still out. I spoke with a number of Hill staffers from both sides of the aisle about the group, and it seems to have created at least one point of bipartisan consensus: No Labels isn’t quite a force to be reckoned with yet.
The group is pushing for a smorgasbord of fairly nonpartisan policy changes, including five-day work weeks for Congress, the passage of No Budget No Pay legislation, and bipartisan seating at joint meetings of Congress. Their efforts don’t seem to have made much of a splash on the Hill.
One staffer tells me that the only interaction he’d had with No Labels was when the group tried to get Democrats and Republicans to sit next to each other at last year’s State of the Union address. “Not exactly a hard-hitting agenda,” he added.
“They don’t stand out from any other organization lobbying Congress,” says another House Republican aide. She adds that she thought the group hadn’t reached out to her boss’s office because he’s “a very principled conservative.”
Huntsman’s involvement doesn’t seem to have helped much on that front. “Honestly, I don’t know anybody in Washington who takes him seriously,” an aide to a high-ranking Senate Republican tells me, adding that his ill-fated presidential bid didn’t help his credibility.
But not everyone sees it that way. No Labels has recruited a group of “congressional problem solvers” consisting of twelve Republicans and 13 Democrats. They’ll meet once a month in hopes of fostering inter-partisan communication, with the goal of growing their numbers to 75 by the end of the year.
Standards for joining seem vague at best, and Lisa Borders told me that so far they don’t have any requirements for maintaining membership. Unlike Grover Norquist’s taxpayer pledge, which famously demonizes defectors, losing Congressional Problem Solver status seems like it would be a challenge.
At the No Labels gathering in Manhattan, Representative Janice Hahn (D., Calif.) obliquely criticized Norquist’s pledge, to audience applause. Since many of the group’s Republican members have signed Norquist’s pledge, I asked Borders if the group’s attitude — that you shouldn’t take any pledge besides the Pledge of Allegiance — was a response to the famous opponent of tax hikes. “It is not a slap at Grover Norquist solely,” she tells me. “It’s a slap at anything that is not the Pledge of Allegiance, and here’s why: Just because, essentially, you are tying your own hands if you sign any pledge, which means you are ill equipped to deal with whatever problem hits your desk.”
One potential upside for members of the group is a PR boost — Manchin and Huntsman have gotten plenty of media coverage, and other Congressional Problem Solvers have also won attention from local publications. A few examples of the kind of positive press that No Labels involvement can generate: Hahn won praise from a local paper for being the only Californian congressman at the event, and the Providence Journal quoted Huntsman lauding Representative David Cicilline (D., R.I.) for his involvement. And Representative Jim Cooper (D., Tenn.) talked up his involvement in the group on a radio program that billed No Labels as including “top opinion makers from across the country” — a dubious description, to say the least.
For many of the group’s members, that kind of friendly news coverage could be a respite from less favorable press. Representative Jim Moran (D., Va.), a member of the group, made headlines when his son resigned from Moran’s campaign over a video where he seemed to condone voter fraud. Later, the same son made the news again for allegedly assaulting his girlfriend. Representative Scott DesJarlais, another member and a pro-life Republican doctor, recently drew criticism for urging a patient (with whom he was having an affair) to have an abortion. Another member of the group, Representative Michael Grimm (R., N.Y.), came under scrutiny when one of his fundraisers was arrested on charges of immigration fraud (an ethics watchdog group later cleared Grimm of any wrongdoing related to the charges). And Representative Richard Hanna (R., N.Y.) may not have made many friends at the RNC when he urged women to donate to the Democratic party.
The potential gains for these congressmen pales in comparison with Huntsman’s, though. Jeff Hartley, who was a consultant in both of his gubernatorial races, tells National Review Online that he suspects Huntsman’s involvement with No Labels could suggest he’s interested in running for office again. “I anticipate he returns to political opportunities at some point, and I imagine that his agreement to join that organization has something to do with his interest in another run at something,” Hartley says.
“It’ll be interesting if they are successful at doing anything,” he continues. “It kind of fits Huntsman’s mold to seek a more diplomatic approach to political challenges facing the country. He’s the consummate diplomat.”
Huntsman’s work for the group has put him back in the national spotlight, and if No Labels succeeds, his reputation could certainly be boosted. The former governor is optimistic about the group’s prospects. “No Labels can be a formidable organization,” he told a group of journalists at a midday press conference at the event.
Manchin elaborated on the group’s anticipated clout in an interview with National Review Online. “What we’d like to gain from the whole thing is that at the end of the day, No Labels has a brand to it,” he says. “That if you belong to No Labels, you’re willing to sit down and put your differences aside and put your country before your politics and before yourself.”
Huntsman agrees. I asked the former governor if he thought the group would eventually have the same magnitude of grassroots influence as the Tea Party or Occupy Wall Street.
“Who knows what it will become,” he told me.
For now, we’ll have to wait and see.
— Betsy Woodruff is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.