Politics & Policy

No Labels, No Content

A group of influential Washingtonians agree on platitudes and call it bipartisanship.

No Labels: A Shared Vision for a Stronger America is an odd little e-book. Clocking in at just over 100 pages, it’s the kind of thing you can read on a slow afternoon. But I struggle to figure out who exactly would want to. That’s not because No Labels isn’t an interesting organization or because its main figureheads, Senator Joe Manchin (D., W.Va.) and former Utah governor Jon Huntsman (R.) are clowns — quite the contrary. It’s more because the book feels like an odd conglomeration of campaign speeches, completely uncontroversial goals, and unhelpful insistences that people in Washington stop fighting with each other.

For those who don’t keep an eagle eye on Washington outside-group politics: No Labels was launched in 2010 by a handful of influential Washingtonians and billed as an antidote to big bad partisan gridlock. The group has baffled observers across the political spectrum with its apophatic approach to politicking and its consistently vague policy proposals.

This book may strive to be an antidote to that. Huntsman edited it, and many of its chapters are authored only by “No Labels.” Other contributors include Manchin, Panera Bread CEO Ron Shaich (ugh, now I’m hungry for Panera), and Bill Galston of the Brookings Institution. The structure is a bit odd; most of the chapters end with a feature called “No Labels Voices” authored by different members of the organization’s Congressional Problem Solvers caucus. These little sections mostly feel like free campaign speeches touting their authors’ abilities to play well with others.

But at moments, they seem to contradict the book’s lofty ideals in ways that are unintentionally amusing. For instance, Representative Kurt Schrader (D., Ore.) boasts of his successful bipartisan push in the Oregon state legislature to open a veterinary college. Former representative Jane Harman (D., Calif.) touted her role in the 1993 efforts to put together the Penny–Kasich deficit-reduction plan. It didn’t pass. But still, bipartisanship! And No Labels Voice Alice Rivlin praised the efforts of Simpson–Bowles and Domenici–Rivlin — neither of which resulted in the passage of legislation. It’s not hard to cherry-pick examples — there’s a lot to choose from — of bipartisan efforts that resulted in little more than warm fuzzies or a vet school.

But those parts of the book are secondary. At its crux is No Labels’ emphasis and re-emphasis and re-re-emphasis on the importance of a “national strategic agenda.” It (pardon the singular gender-neutral pronoun; the writer is identified as “No Labels,” whom I don’t want to incorrectly sex) proposes four goals that everyone should agree on: the creation of 25 million jobs over the next ten years, reform of Medicare and Social Security so they’re solvent for the next 75 years, a balanced federal budget by 2030, and energy independence by 2035.

Not exactly contentious stuff. Not bad goals. But the book gives zero insight into how to reach said goals, or (besides a little mumbling about solar panels) what theoretical policy initiatives could get us closer to their realization. Instead, No Labels: A Shared Vision for a Stronger America suggests repeatedly that leaders should lead, and that they should also try to fix things. My favorite instance is in the book’s first chapter, where Huntsman expresses awe that 97 percent of people who responded to a No Labels–commissioned poll said they wanted their next president to be a problem-solver. In the book’s final chapter, author No Labels refers to the same statistic.

“Ninety-seven percent of Americans told us in a poll last year that it’s important for our next president to be a problem solver,” it writes. “Ninety-seven percent.”

What did the other 3 percent want in a president? Alex Jones? Seems that No Labels could have gotten more bang for their pollster-buck by asking a slightly more controversial question (e.g., “Do you think it’s bad to kick pets?”).

And that’s a curious thing about the text. There’s this constant refrain that No Labels is doing something groundbreaking and heroic. But then there’s little to no evidence of results to back up that assertion.

“Finding common objectives that will lead to a national strategy will take a lot of listening and extreme political courage,” writes Representative Schrader. No disrespect to the good congressman, but I can think of one or two things that require slightly more extreme political courage than suggesting that maybe someday America should be energy-independent.

So the target audience is what really baffles me. On a Morning Joe segment with Manchin and Huntsman, host Mika Brzezinski suggested that everyone in Congress should read the book. But why would they want to? There are no policy suggestions, no strategic planning, no news — just congressmen talking about how well they get along with other congressmen, and the mystery No Labels scribe talking about how unemployment is bad. It’s a short read, at least. But it could have been much, much shorter.

— Betsy Woodruff is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.


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