For those who are mulling a run for political office, I’ve got a present for you–a line you can throw into your stump speech that’s guaranteed to get the crowd nodding and cheering with approval: “It’s about time,” you can say, “that our leaders stopped acting like Democrats and Republicans and started acting like Americans!”
Actually, you’ve probably heard that line a million time before, from Democrats and Republicans alike, and yet it never seems to lose its punch. To the average voter, the system is always broken, it’s always the fault of both parties, and it would always get better if only our leaders would stop worrying so much about…you know, politics.
That’s the premise behind a group called "No Labels," which has been around for a few years now but that had what amounted to a splashy relaunch in New York this week. It purports to be a grassroots movement of Democrats and Republicans who just want to see problems solved, but it seems to be populated mainly by familiar Beltway types. The two new national chairmen are Joe Manchin, the Democratic senator from West Virginia, and Jon Huntsman, who racked up more fawning media profiles in his presidential campaign last year than actual votes.
Their diagnosis for Washington’s inability to solve big problems: The two parties don’t know each other, don’t talk to each other, and don’t work together. How to fix this? Here’s Huntsman’s prescription:
"[Y]ou start by getting a group of problem solvers, Republicans and Democrats alike, who are willing to check egos at the door and put country before party, make decisions for the next generation as opposed to the next election cycle/"
Ah, so there it is–the missing formula that’s kept us from full employment, meaningful action on climate change, and a more generous social safety net. Thanks for the tip, Jon.
Seriously, there are all sorts of problems with the "No Labels" approach, but let’s stick to the simplest. The beauty of our system is that our elected officials serve as the mercy of their constituents. Don’t like your congressman? You can vote him or her out in two years. If you don’t like the president, you never have to wait more than four years to register your objections. For senators, it’s six years.
For elected officials, this creates a powerful incentive to remain responsive to those who elected you. Represent their interests well and they will–in theory–reward you with another term, or maybe even a promotion. So to the extent there’s gridlock in Washington now and nothing is getting done, it’s for a very rational reason: For a significant chunk of Congress, there’s no incentive to compromise with the other party on serious issues.
And if we’re to be honest, this is almost exclusively a phenomenon of the Obama-era Republican Party, which has taken obstructionism and rejectionism to levels we’ve never before seen. In both the 2010 and 2012 election cycles, Republican primary voters made their willingness to vote out incumbents and impeccably qualified pragmatists abundantly clear, preferring instead to nominate candidates like Sharron Angle, Christine O’Donnell, Joe Miller, Carl Paladino, Todd Akin, and others.
This has created a climate of fear among Republicans in Congress. If they reach across the aisle, make concessions to Democrats and pursue big deals on big problems, they stand to lose their jobs–and careers–in Republican primaries.
This is the real source of congressional dysfunction today. It doesn't matter how well Democratic and Republican members of Congress get to know each other, how many meals they share, how many car pools they organize. The problem is that compromise is a deadly, career-ending word in one party–and No Labels has no solution for that.