Monday, June 17, 2024

Opinion | How No Labels is ruining the label of ‘independent’

Opinion | How No Labels is ruining the label of ‘independent’

Among my Democratic friends, just the mention of No Labels elicits a Yosemite Sam, steam-coming-from-the-ears kind of rage. They see the bipartisan group, which is talking about drafting a third-party presidential candidate, as a stalking horse for Republicans looking to steal votes from President Biden.

As a committed independent, politically and temperamentally, I have a different problem with No Labels, which is that by espousing a bunch of mushy, meet-in-the-middle policies, it advances a dated and uninspiring idea of what a dissenting political movement should be.

No Labels unveiled its agenda in recent days, with two centrists essentially exiled by their own parties — former Connecticut senator Joseph I. Lieberman and former Utah governor Jon Huntsman — acting as spokesmen. Billed as a “blueprint for where America’s commonsense majority wants this country to go,” the 63-page agenda seeks gauzy, familiar bipartisan compromises on pretty much every divisive issue in American life.

The group says the Second Amendment guarantees you the right to own guns, but maybe not before you’re 21. Illegal immigration should be halted, but undocumented immigrants should have a path to citizenship. Stop me if you’ve heard all this before. (I’ll assume that’s a yes.)

Predictably, the document drew immediate mockery from much of the news media and the political left. As my Post colleague Paul Waldman put it, declaring himself to be anti-common-sense: “When you hear someone make an appeal to common sense, as countless politicians in both parties do, there is a good chance they’re leading you down a path in which reality is denied and solutions have little or nothing behind them.”

In my view, the problem with No Labels is not that it’s trying to find a reform agenda that defies the orthodoxies of either party. The problem is in assuming that such an agenda can be found at the midpoint between the two parties, rather than making the case for whichever policies are right — regardless of whether they sound extreme or which party originated them.

After all, King Solomon didn’t come to embody wisdom by actually splitting a baby down the middle — that would have been sadistic even for the Old Testament. The baby-splitting was just a threat. The wisdom came in taking the time to discern who had the righteous cause.

I agree with the critics of No Labels that we don’t need an independent movement to forge a bunch of tepid bipartisan compromises. What we could use, however, is a nonpartisan movement that embraces bold reforms and basic American values, no matter which loud constituency in either party might object.

If I were laying out such an agenda, for instance, I’d embrace a more urgent and centralized response to climate change, and I’d argue that the Second Amendment pretty clearly applies only to those in organized militias — both positions firmly held by the far left.

Jennifer Rubin: No Labels can’t hide its right-wing ties

But I’d also sharply rein in deficit spending by subjecting all entitlement programs to means testing (which is, after all, more progressive), and I’d defend the bedrock value of free speech against efforts to impose the approved language of social justice. In the rigid duality of our political moment, these are considered conservative positions.

Probably very few voters would agree with me on every issue, but so what? The point of an independent political movement shouldn’t be to offer whatever anodyne mash-up of the two existing parties yields the broadest consensus in polling data.

The point is to show genuine independence and conviction, rather than reading from a preordained list of talking points. The point is to get beyond the dueling litmus tests and actually think about the pressing issues of the day, even if not everyone agrees with all of the choices you make.

If we’ve learned one thing from Donald Trump’s calamitous takeover of what used to be the Republican Party, it should be that voters are desperate for leaders who aren’t bound by conventional dogmas and who think for themselves. Simply trying to triangulate a perfect midpoint between those dogmas isn’t going to inspire anyone.

I’m skeptical that No Labels can have much success as an electoral force, no matter how well its positions might poll. Modern politics, as we’ve seen, is built not around party platforms but, rather, magnetic personalities. Building a leaderless party structure and then drafting some career politician to head up the ticket might be an effective strategy for overthrowing the two-party monopoly — if you built a time machine and traveled back to 1860.

But where No Labels might yet succeed is in furthering the idea that “independent” or “centrist” simply means you believe passionately in nothing, other than splitting the proverbial baby.

That’s a label thoughtful independents can do without.

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