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Why the 'No Labels' Movement Will Fail

Writing on the op-ed page of the Washington Post, William Galston and David Frum announced the formation of what they hope will be a new bipartisan movement which they dub “No Labels.”  Their goal, commented Commentary editor John Podhoretz, is “to embrace the concept that American politics should move beyond ideological camps.”  I differ slightly with Podhoretz in his evaluation of their would-be goal.

As Galston and Frum write, they believe that “the center has collapsed, and ideological overlap between the parties has vanished.” The Republicans in their eyes are too far to the right, and the Democrats too far to the left. As they explain, “Although 30 percent of grass-roots Republicans consider themselves moderate or liberal, and 60 percent of Democrats consider themselves moderate or conservative, their voices are muted in the nation's capital. As increasingly polarized media feed centrifugal forces, potential primary challengers stand ready to punish deviation from party orthodoxies. Only 22 percent of the Pew respondents thought that cooperation was likely to happen under these circumstances.”

What they clearly want, but shy away from saying, is a new centrist party to emerge from the heart of both the Democratic and Republican Parties. I should note that this was once my hope as well. In a book I wrote in 1996 about the left-wing takeover of the Democratic Party,  I concluded with these words:

"The Democratic Party as a whole has shifted to the Left, precisely at the moment when the Republican Party has shifted toward the Right. That means that the old political Center has eroded once and for all -- a fact that has led many Americans to hope for the creation of a new political party of the Center, the kind that might be led by the likes of Bill Bradley, Colin Powell or Sam Nunn."

At the time, I considered myself a center-right Democrat, much like Bill Galston is today. Therefore I hoped for the creation of a new “political realignment” that would create a force for “fiscal and personal responsibility, cultural conservatism, and a more limited and constrained social safety net.”

Now, I consider myself a moderate conservative, and, as I argued in a previous blog post, many of the moderate Democrats are in fact asserting the viability and correctness of conservative programs, which is why I argued that perhaps Democrats like Galston and Ed Koch might consider becoming Republicans. Then they might have more of a chance to gain support for the solutions they favor to today’s problems. Their arguments are really conservative solutions and far from those favored by most Democrats. By joining the Republican Party, they could help make it more of a big-tent party, not a party shifting too far to the right.

The problem with the Galston-Frum argument is that rather than try and move to what I think they really want -- a  moderate conservative party -- they have come up with something that is little more than a gimmick, creating a movement which they argue is based on attaining a single goal: “to expand the space within which citizens and elected officials can conduct that conversation without fear of social or political retribution.” A movement, in other words, that will avoid “partisanship.”

Let’s stop on the latter point. What is wrong with partisanship? Aren’t political parties and candidates supposed to stand for something, so that the electorate knows what they are voting for or against? At one point, FDR even said that he hoped America would create one national conservative party and one national liberal party, so that the choice between the two would be starkly presented and then Americans could choose which direction they wanted the country to move towards. In a way, we are about at that point now. If the silent majority of the public -- the group Galston and Frum cite as their basis for a new movement -- do not like the present set-up, then a new party would emerge from the remnant of one of the two existing major parties.