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“If the Trumpet Gives an Uncertain Sound, Who Shall Prepare for Battle?”
Touting “common sense” and “bipartisan solutions”, the would-be alternative to the Democratic and Republican parties unveiled its platform in July.
No Labels, the group with $70 million working to get on the ballot in all 50 states for the 2024 presidential election, side stepped everything controversial. There was nothing to excite, nothing to object to, in their aspirations titled Common Sense.
Problems are described persuasively. Proposed solutions are mostly platitudes. No Labels makes no hard choices.
How to fix Social Security? “America just needs a president and a Congress with the courage to say that Social Security’s impending insolvency is a challenge that we can and must solve together.”
How to reduce the national debt? “Appoint an independent and bipartisan deficit reduction commission … that would be tasked with forming a deficit reduction plan.” Getting the economy growing faster would “make every budget problem easier to solve.”
How to improve community policing? “Washington could help by providing more funding …
Another compelling idea: the federal government could consider establishing police service academies… to ensure the best of the best are being sent to help patrol our communities.”
On abortion. “The politics of abortion is complicated and so is the science.”
On laws affecting transgender individuals. “If our leaders consider this controversial issue from
a position of dignity, respect, and common sense, they can ensure all Americans have the full measure of respect and equality they deserve, while giving parents a say in when and how their kids learn about sensitive issues of gender and sexuality.”
Among the “foundational beliefs” of No Labels. “We are grateful to live in a country where we can openly disagree with other people. We care about our country more than any political party. … We know America is not perfect. But we’d rather live here than anywhere else.”
Some of a certain age remember the Wendy’s commercial and Walter Mondale’s comment on the emptiness of Gary Hart’s campaign for president in the 1984 Democratic primary, “Where is the beef?” I digress. But you get the idea.
No Labels has no vision of where it wants to take the nation and how we might get there. That is the difficult part of politics. It requires getting your hands dirty, making difficult choices, offending some, even your friends, if necessary.
The main message No Labels keeps coming back to? People are good. “Decent, caring, reasonable and patriotic.” Politicians and political parties are bad. “Angry and extremist voices driven by ideology and identity politics.”
The remedy? “Common sense” and “bipartisan solutions”. (“Common Sense” seems to have become the poll tested words used by many when they want to sound substantive, but know that anything substantive will be controversial.)
The decision by No Labels to feature Democratic Senator Joe Manchin from West Virginia and John Huntsman, former Republican governor of Utah at the roll out of their platform was curious. Presumably, the choice of one Democrat and one Republican, illustrated a bipartisan attitude, but neither has demonstrated any particular skill at forging bipartisan solutions.
Manchin has made his reputation by becoming the final vote needed. The last one on board, however, is not the one who put the votes together. The one who made the needed adjustments to add votes and still keep those already on board from jumping ship. To lead, you have to be able to persuade, not be the last one to be persuaded.
Huntsman never needed Democratic votes as Republicans had better than a 2 to 1 majority in both the Utah House and Senate during the years he was governor.
But perhaps the choice by No Labels was not so curious. Manchin and Huntsman do embody their vision. A tepid version of bipartisanship. No leadership. No sacrifice. No actual coming together. (When asked, the two couldn’t agree on either energy policy to combat climate change or a way to reduce gun violence.)
Perhaps hoping to benefit from the aura, Common Sense cites the 1964 Civil Rights Act as the “greatest bipartisan accomplishment” of the last hundred years. The comparison, however, only illustrates how different that effort was. Both leaders, President Lyndon Johnson and Republican Senate Leader Everett Dirksen, had been in Congress some 30 years and skilled practitioners in the art of delivering votes.
Johnson and Dirksen had to persuade members to move out from their comfort zones. Reverse previous votes. Go counter to their own political interests. Say “no” to their friends. Johnson knew full well that passage of the Act put the future of the Democratic Party in the South at risk. History proved him right.
Back then it took 67 votes in the Senate in invoke cloture, shutting off debate. A civil rights bill had never previously made it to the Senate floor for a vote. A filibuster led by Southern Democrats that continued over several months threatened to keep that record alive. Since 1917, when the cloture rule was adopted, only five times had debate been shut off.
When the motion for cloture was finally made on June 10, fifty-seven days after the Senate began considering the Act, seventy-one senators voted to shut off debate. For eleven of them, it was their first pro-cloture vote on a civil rights bill. Getting there took creativity, persistence, leadership skills and time. Johnson and Dirksen delivered. Each had the leverage within his own party built on years of relationships to be persuasive.
The bipartisanship in Common Sense is too easy. Take a little of this, a little of that. Nothing controversial. Problems that require bipartisanship to get fixed don’t get fixed that way. Effective bipartisanship breaks new ground, moves people out of their usual ways of thinking. It also creates controversy because many believe their way of thinking is best. Changing your vote is caving to pressure.
Saying “no” to friends has always been difficult. They appreciate your standing up to others, but they expect you to do what they want. When I was in the Illinois General Assembly, one constituent after praising me for being independent got quite angry when I responded to a request of his, “Let me think about it.”
“He’s ours. He can’t do that to us,” was a lobbyist’s complaint about an Illinois colleague. At a meeting in Madison, a woman who wondered how Kathleen could vote “that way” complained, “But I sent her a check for $100.” How often do we hear, “We elected them, now we have to hold them accountable.”
There are few electeds left with the chutzpah of Jesse Unruh, the long-ago Speaker of the California House, who famously said, “If you can’t take their money, drink their booze, and look them in the eye and vote “no”, you don’t belong in this business.” They have been weeded out. “Friends” have become more powerful and more insistent that you give them what they want. Without any amendments they don’t agree to.
Of all today’s politicians, of both parties, Joe Biden has probably been most vocal about working with the other party. He has been ridiculed and castigated by a fair number of fellow Democrats.
Which makes another action of No Labels, whose main message is bipartisanship, hard to understand. Their stated intention is to seriously explore running a candidate for president on the No Labels’ ticket if Trump and Biden are the nominees. Arguably, Biden has acted out and accomplished what No Labels only talks about.
Without substance, actions and credible leaders, “common sense” and “bipartisanship” are just pretty words. Words used to transform posturing and wishful thinking into progress. But there is no magic wand. No shortcut to success. No shortcut to change. The words stay words.