The Magazine

The Middle Kingdom

Everybody loves the spirit of compromise. Except voters.

Mar 10, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 25 • By JAY COST
Widget tooltip
Audio version Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Historically, potent third parties or outside political movements have had one of two origins. On the one hand, they were driven by powerful personalities who did not fit cleanly within either of the major parties: Theodore Roosevelt (1912), George Wallace (1968), and H. Ross Perot (1992, 1996) are the three primary examples. On the other hand, they represented some interest or faction that was being ignored by the two major parties: Among such groups, we may count the abolitionist movement of the 1830s-50s as well as the populist movement of the 1880s-90s.

Jay Cost

The group called No Labels fits neither of these categories. So what is it? Judging by No Labels: A Shared Vision for a Stronger America, it is a vanity project for politicians looking to inoculate themselves from the electoral downsides that their party labels might carry. Its rallying cry is “Republican politicians of blue states, Democrats of red states .  .  . UNITE!”

That is scarcely a stirring call to action—and of course, No Labels does not want you to walk away thinking this. Still, the impression is undeniable, at least when you get beyond the clichés and tautologies with which this book is riddled. My favorite among its many non sequiturs comes from Alice Rivlin, former director of the Office of Management and Budget under Bill Clinton, who explains, “We must break the gridlock by restoring dialogue and cooperation right now.” In other words, we must break gridlock by breaking gridlock. In another section, we are told, “Washington isn’t lacking a way, but increasingly, it seems to be lacking the will.”

If you ever played junior varsity football and would like to revisit the pep talks about giving 110 percent, then this book is for you. If, on the other hand, you’re looking for serious solutions to today’s problems, then you’d do best to look elsewhere. The Big Idea of No Labels is that America must plan to have a plan for national greatness. Beyond that, this is mostly an opportunity for incumbent politicians to tell us how awesome they were before they got to Congress. Representative Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.), for instance, regales us with a story of how he and the Republican leader of the legislature worked together to build a veterinary college. Representative Charlie Dent (R-Pa.) explains how he and Ron Kind (D-Wis.) almost got the medical device tax repealed (which, by the way, Kind had voted for in the first place). Representative Lynn Jenkins (R-Kan.) explains how she prevailed upon a Democratic-controlled Congress to help the 66 families of Treece, Kansas, relocate because of an environmental hazard. 

Verily, these stories of courage and perseverance can serve as a template for tackling Medicare and the runaway cost of college educations. Yet the central premise of No Labels—If only all of Washington were more like Jon Huntsman, Joe Manchin, and Charlie Dent—makes it not so much useless as harmful. It implies, falsely, that personalities and partisanship are the cause of our problems, when in fact the opposite is true: The nation’s problems are sufficiently substantial that there is no consensus on how to solve them, hence the yawning partisan divide. Democrats and Republicans disagree on basic premises about what to do next, and, as is evident from No Labels, nobody in the middle has any actual ideas about how to bridge the divide.

In the end, political disagreements are not about people in Washington being jerks; they are about real trade-offs between competing visions of the public good, something that No Labels willfully ignores. For instance, No Labels calls for a balanced budget in 2030, as if that were possible without substantially raising taxes, cutting the military to the bone, or totally reorganizing the welfare state. In other words, absent the kind of robust economic growth that the United States witnessed in the 1990s, balancing the budget will create vast classes of winners and losers—hence the gridlock of today. 

The same goes for No Labels’ call to reform Social Security and Medicare to ensure that they are sustainable for the rest of this century. Great! But that would require either raising taxes or altering the structures of these programs, which means that somebody, somewhere, is going to be much worse off.

The country at large is certainly frustrated by the lack of consensus in Washington, but if people want someone to blame, they should look in the mirror. There are many dysfunctional things about our government, but gridlock isn’t one of them. Gridlock is a product of the absence of public consensus. Both parties offer divergent paths forward, but election cycle after election cycle, the nation as a whole exclaims, “I can’t decide!”