One of the more fascinating battles in politics is between the centrist Democratic group Third Way and the allegedly centrist non-partisan group No Labels, which I examined carefully at New York:
The ideological polarization of the two major political parties that took place during and after the civil-rights era fed a partisan polarization as voters began to sort themselves out into dual tribes with contrasting points of view on a broad range of issues. As interparty disharmony increased, it was inevitable that there would be a widespread craving for more cooperation across party lines. That has been the mother’s milk of “centrism” in both major parties (more prevalent among Democrats than Republicans, to be sure) and absolute rocket fuel for bipartisan and nonpartisan organizations like No Labels. That group has flourished since its founding in 2010 as a vehicle for Republican and Democratic centrists to signal their interest in, and in some cases actually work on, joint policy projects, particularly in Congress (where it sponsored the bipartisan House Problem Solvers Caucus).
In the Trump era of hyperpolarization, the craving for bipartisanship on which No Labels feeds has intensified along with voter fatigue with the traditional parties and the gerontocracy that often seems to rule them. Unfortunately, this development has seduced the leadership of No Labels to consider a fateful plunge into its own electoral project at the very highest level: a presidential candidacy in 2024. A significant segment of its original “centrist” supporters and sympathizers — especially those whose “label” being put aside was the Democratic donkey — has objected vociferously. These include the founder and CEO of the once-formidable Democratic Leadership Council, Al From, and, most of all, the organization that is in many respects the DLC’s successor, Third Way, which has become the Paul Revere of Democratic opposition to No Labels. Centrist policy intellectual and former No Labels booster Bill Galston has best explained his and other Democrats’ estrangement from No Labels, as reported by David A. Graham:
“’The initial premise was: We have no choice but to make the two-party system better,’ the political scientist William Galston told me. Galston helped found No Labels, but he parted ways with the group in 2023 because he feared that a presidential bid would help reelect Trump. ‘The current effort rests on a different premise altogether — namely, that we have to go outside the two-party system to make things better,’ Galston said.”
Running its own presidential candidate arguably makes the nonpartisan No Labels a third party, even though the group rejects that … label. In theory, the idea is to jolt Democrats and Republicans into cooperation by beating them to the White House, presumably just once. The premise seems to be that a No Labels president — or, in some iterations of the group’s shadowy 2024 plans, a president who takes office via a deal with No Labels after its candidate has denied either party an Electoral College majority — will retreat from the field after forcing the old parties to play pretty with each other. That scenario requires a degree of trust in No Labels’ leaders that they really haven’t earned, as Graham observes:
“No Labels isn’t offering much information at all about how it will choose its ticket without a primary. The group says it will make the decision about whether to field a candidate after Super Tuesday, based on an analysis of whether such a candidate would have a real shot. Many experts outside No Labels see such a calculation as basically impossible …
“Assuming No Labels does decide to nominate a candidate, how will the group choose that person? That’s a mystery too. Originally, the group planned an in-person convention of supporters this April in Dallas, but in November, it announced plans to hold the convention virtually instead. But No Labels hasn’t said what such a convention would look like or what role delegates would play in choosing the candidate.”
Based on Joe Biden’s own centrist credentials and the tight-knit Republican-base vote that Donald Trump commands, most of No Labels’ Democratic detractors echo Galston’s fear that any candidate sponsored by the group will take more votes away from the incumbent and pave the way for another Trump plurality win even more egregious than his 2016 election. And No Labels’ secrecy about the donors who have paid for its extensive ballot-access operation (which has succeeded in 14 states despite no one knowing the identity of its candidate) has fed the suspicion that a Trump victory could be the whole idea.
Even if you don’t believe the No Labels 2024 initiative is a sinister MAGA plot and instead think it’s a well-meaning but dangerously naïve undertaking (as Third Way’s leaders suggest), it’s just bizarre that its plans have gone so far without a clear plan of what they will actually produce. But there are signs the wheels are falling off this particular bandwagon, as CNN’s Edward-Isaac Dovere reports:
“Larry Hogan, the Republican former governor of Maryland, quit the No Labels board last month over frustration that power and information were being hoarded by group leadership — and not to, as reported elsewhere, clear the way for a presidential run of his own.
“’It’s been far less organized than he expected it to be’ and ‘he doesn’t see a plan coming together,’ a person familiar with Hogan’s thinking told CNN. ‘You don’t know where this train is going, and you’re signing up for something you didn’t necessarily sign up for.’
“Asked for his own assessment of the No Labels plan, [West Virginia Senator Joe] Manchin told CNN on the road in New Hampshire as he kicked off a national tour, ‘I don’t think anybody knows. I think it’s changing day by day, hour by hour.’
That’s significant since Hogan and Manchin are the two names mentioned most often as potential No Labels presidential candidates. Pretty clearly the organization has veered off course, arguably because it tried to change missions overnight. Historically, those who try to harness discontent with major political parties seek to break the mold by creating their own “third” party in hopes of realigning politics or actually aim at “reforming” one of the old parties in a more productive direction. No Labels’ ostensible strategy of knocking Democratic and Republican heads together and then fading away makes no sense and thus naturally arouses suspicion. It’s probably going nowhere fast in 2024, and that’s a good thing even for those unhappy with the Democrats and the Republicans. No Labels lost its original purpose and as a result has lost its soul.