"No Labels"? More like, "No point"

Last week Jennifer Jacobs wrote a strange feature for the Des Moines Register exploring why the “No Labels” movement is not gaining more traction in Iowa.

A better question: why would smart guys like State Senator Jeff Danielson or U.S. Representatives Bruce Braley and Dave Loebsack hitch their wagons to this useless group? Leaders of No Labels express grand ambitions to “make government work again,” but the organization looks more like make-work for political consultants who are between campaign jobs. Resting on false premises, No Labels promotes the wrong “fix” for what’s broken in public policy. It’s also a classic example of a Washington-based astroturf (that is, fake grassroots) movement.  

First, allow me to present a few excerpts from Jacobs’ article, “‘No Labels’ movement focused on toning down partisanship gains little traction in Iowa.”

Only two of Iowa’s six congressmen are among the 92-member No Labels problem-solvers caucus: Democratic U.S. Reps. Dave Loebsack and Bruce Braley.

Several state lawmakers interviewed by The Des Moines Register had never heard of No Labels. […]

No Labels, which has a staff of 15 and a budget of $4 million, is serious about building networks of people who support problem-solving and want to work toward a bipartisan agenda that a new president could enact in 2017, organizers say. […]

An Iowan is leading the state-level work nationwide: state Sen. Jeff Danielson, D-Waterloo. He has reached out to 200 officials across the country so far.

To jump-start Iowa, where presidential candidates flock, Danielson hopes to find one Republican and one Democrat to be out front – preferably an experienced state official with some campaign war wounds and trend-setting gravitas.

So far, no one has stepped forward.

Three cheers for everyone who rejected the invitation to be a useful idiot front person for No Labels in Iowa or anywhere else.

Maybe they recognize No Labels doesn’t represent a real popular movement. Instead, the group uses astroturfing techniques to create the appearance of public support.

Or maybe they recognize that the group’s agenda is based on false premises.

False premise 1: Labels are inherently bad because they signify allegiance to “rhetoric” rather than problem-solving.

On the contrary, labels offer voters a way to understand a candidate or elected official’s general orientation without exhaustive research. Obviously, no one expects state or federal lawmakers to slavishly follow their party’s agenda. But knowing that a candidate is a Democrat or Republican or Libertarian or Green gives me a general idea of what s/he stands for.

Labels can also provide an easy way to understand where a person fits into his or her party of choice. On many issues, a progressive will agree with a Blue Dog, but those labels help me understand where they might disagree with each other or with mainstream Democratic Party views. By the same token, knowing whether someone considers herself a Rockefeller Republican (remember those?) or a tea party Republican says a lot.  

Once upon a time, Bruce Braley understood that labels can be useful shorthand for a person’s principles and priorities. That’s presumably one reason he went to the trouble of organizing a House Populist Caucus of several dozen Democrats in early 2009.

False premise 2: the elite bipartisan consensus is inherently good.

Elected officials don’t need to reject their party labels to work toward policy compromises. Iowa lawmakers didn’t need to affiliate with any fake movement like No Labels to hammer out deals last year on commercial property taxes or health insurance coverage for low-income people. Reasonable minds can differ on whether that horse-trading produced a worthwhile compromise or something worse than doing nothing.

We can all agree that Congress has been functioning poorly in recent years, but it doesn’t follow that knee-jerk bipartisanship is the answer. Compromise for the sake of, say, comprehensive immigration reform would be a positive step for millions of Americans, even if the end result didn’t exactly match progressive goals on the issue. In contrast, a bipartisan deal to change how the government uses the Consumer Price Index to calculate a cost of living adjustment for Social Security benefits would be a massive rip-off.

Frank Rich said it well more than three years ago:

In its patronizing desire to instruct us on what is wrong with our politics, No Labels ends up being a damning indictment of just how alarmingly out of touch the mainstream political-media elite remains with the grievances that have driven Americans to cynicism and despair in the 21st century’s Gilded Age. […]

The notion that civility and nominal bipartisanship would accomplish any of the heavy lifting required to rebuild America is childish magical thinking, and, worse, a mindless distraction from the real work before the nation. […]

Yet what’s most disturbing about No Labels is that its centrist, no doubt well-intentioned leaders seem utterly clueless about why Americans of all labels are angry: the realization that both parties are bought off by special interests who game the system and stack it against the rest of us. Indeed, No Labels itself is another manifestation of this syndrome. Its two prime movers are a political consultant, Mark McKinnon, a veteran of the Bush and McCain campaigns known for slick salesmanship; and a fund-raiser, Nancy Jacobson, who, along with her husband, the pollster and corporate flack Mark Penn, helped brand the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign as a depository for special-interest contributions.

I doubt No Labels has the potential to accomplish anything other than create a steady income for McKinnon, Jacobson, and the other dozen-odd staffers who get by on the organization’s budget of $4 million. (UPDATE: McKinnon and Jacobson say they volunteer their time for this organization; see correction below.) By the way, we don’t know where No Labels gets the funds for such a robust budget.

I hope that State Senator Danielson and Representatives Braley and Loebsack don’t really believe in this group’s rhetoric. Perhaps they see the affiliation with No Labels as a harmless way to burnish their own “bipartisan” images.

During their 2012 re-election bids, campaign ads for Danielson and Braley touched on the theme of being willing to work with members of the other party. Loebsack has voted for quite a few Republican bills in recent years and sought lots of publicity in 2012 for his work with a Republican colleague to support the Rock Island Arsenal. Later this year, bipartisanship is sure to be a refrain of Braley’s Senate campaign and Loebsack’s bid for a fifth term in Iowa’s second Congressional district.

Any relevant comments are welcome in this thread.

UPDATE: In the comments, Bleeding Heartland user 2laneIA flagged an atrocious idea No Labels has been pushing for Congress to enact. Again, “bipartisan” is not synonymous with “good policy.”

SECOND UPDATE/CORRECTION: Via e-mail, I received this response from the co-founders of No Labels.

To whom it may concern:

Your recent post about No Labels was drenched in cynicism, which is exactly why we started the organization. It also contained inaccurate information, so we hope for the sake of fairness, you will publish this clarification. No Labels is a non-partisan political non-profit organization with a mission to address hyper partisanship and gridlock in Washington. As cofounders, we volunteer all of our time and do not receive any compensation for the work we do. More than 90 members of Congress have signed on with No Labels as part of the Problem Solvers group and are committed to working across the aisle and create shared goals. They meet regularly and as a group and have filed 17 pieces of legislation in just last few months.  Which is more than you can say for most of the rest of Congress.

Sincerely,

Nancy Jacobson, Founder

Mark McKinnon, Cofounder

I stand corrected–I did not realize that Jacobson and McKinnon were not taking a salary for their work with No Labels. My opinion about the value of this group is unchanged. I can think of many ways to spend $4 million annually that would do more for the public interest.

Members of Congress can file bipartisan legislation without being affiliated with No Labels. Some of the “problem-solver” bills may be decent ideas, but others are not. I reject the premise that bipartisan work oriented toward the elite Washington consensus is better public service than promising to stand by your party’s principles. By the way, Braley and Loebsack are among the House Democrats scorned by No Labels for signing a pledge to protect Social Security.

  • I'll give them credit.

    They have come up with one of the worst ideas I ever heard.

    Twice a year, the president should be able to introduce legislation directly to Congress for a fast-track vote, which would allow the legislation to pass with a majority vote and without amendments. To qualify for fast-track status, legislation would require 10 sponsors from each party in the House and five sponsors in each party in the Senate. Bipartisan presidential commissions would have similar fast-track authority for their final report if it is in legislative form.

    Congress has granted the president similar authority to negotiate trade deals in the past, and some states allow their governors to submit their budgets as fast-track bills. It’s time to grant the president this limited fast-track authority to bypass partisan obstruction and make progress on our nation’s most pressing challenges.

    Bad enough that the President is trying to get fast track authority for the TPP, which is the wish list of every predatory corporation that would like to get rid of those pesky environmental or consumer protection laws.  The geniuses at No Labels want him to have fast track authority for all sorts of wish lists.  

    Let’s see.  What could they be thinking of for such authority?  

    In fact, a No Labels position paper published on its website, Deep Dive: The Federal Deficit, links directly to Peterson’s foundation and the numerous projects he has funded to promote his fiscally conservative views. Adhering to Peterson’s party line, the No Labels platform asserts that most American voters want “a government that makes the necessary choices to rein in runaway deficits, secure Social Security and Medicare, and put our country on a viable, sound path going forward.”

    Bruce Braley just signed a letter in opposition to chained CPI, so maybe he is not entirely in thrall to these folks.  But being associated with No Labels does not make you bipartisan.  It puts you in opposition to large majorities of Americans who are not interested in cutting Social Security and shipping more jobs overseas.

    • they are a bunch of grifters

      pushing a pro-corporate agenda. Give me a $4 million budget to work with, and I guarantee I will do a lot more good while employing a lot more people.

      I saw that Braley and Loebsack both were on record opposing chained CPI last year. I don’t think they would take marching orders from No Labels or anything like that. I just don’t think it reflects well on their judgment that they want to be associated with this group.

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