“Has any org ever gotten off to a worse start?” That was Slate publisher Jake Weisberg’s tweeted reaction to the launch of the new centrist organization, “No Labels.” Weisberg was at least expressing sympathy. Other comments ranged from the derisive to the abusive. The Twittersphere erupted in competitive snark: Rush Limbaugh denounced the group over two successive broadcasts. Political reporters speculated whether No Labels was really a “Bloomberg for president” organization in disguise.
Meanwhile, the group was hammered by accusations that it had plagiarized its logo from a New York graphic designer. (No Labels has issued an apology.)
I’ve got a special interest in this story. I have spoken at No Labels events. I’m friends with some of the group’s organizers. I coauthored with Clinton administration veteran Bill Galston a Washington Post op-ed introducing the group’s mission.
So let me state for the record: I’m a registered Republican. I voted for John McCain in 2008. I expect to vote for the Republican candidate for president in 2012. Yet I find important potential in the No Labels project, and here is why: the supporters.
At the events I’ve attended, I’ve met hundreds of intelligent, active people who want something different and better from their national government. Can you blame them? We are living in an era of repeated failure of governance: wars unwon, financial markets unpoliced, stimulus that did not stimulate, health reform that does not control costs.
Rush Limbaugh complains that most of the people involved in No Labels are Democrats. But to this Republican, it is precisely the Democratic flavor of No Labels that is most interesting and promising. Three years and five years ago, the attendees at No Labels events were investing their money in Democratic candidates , thinking that all our problems would be solved by a change of party in Congress and the White House. Now they are disappointed. They cast their votes, won elections. But rather than a return to the businesslike government of the second Clinton term, they got instead the ultra-ideological politics of the Obama-Reid-Pelosi first term.
This disappointment has set many of them thinking creatively about new rules of the road to improve the functioning of American government.
• Persistent budget deficits are a symptom of a political system that cannot bring means in line with ends.
• The huge lines at airport security are a symptom of a system that cannot think rationally about risk.
• The financial crisis is a system of the ease with which vested interests can capture government regulatory power.
Ameliorating problems like these would improve the quality of both our liberal and our conservative politics. We need liberals who are less frightened to address huge unfunded public-sector pensions, and we need conservatives who are less in thrall to Wall Street.
The object is not to banish labels from politics altogether. I will continue proudly to wear mine. The object is to address the issues that are not easily reducible to labels — but that shape, for better or worse, the success of American government under all labels.
Originally published in The Week.