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.
Clearly, the No Label movement does not address this issue. Instead, it concentrates on what the authors see as “rhetoric” that “exacerbates” existing problems. Thus they seek to set up and “establish lines that no one should cross.” The problem is, who decides what those lines are? Galston and Frum? Joe Scarborough and Mayor Bloomberg? Stanley Kurtz and myself? Moderate Democrats and Republicans that Galston and Frum like? Or someone else who gives the job to other people?
Yes, there is unnecessary divisiveness, and some at the extremes of both parties — MoveOn.org on the left and some of the Tea Party on the Right -- make charges that anger their opponents and are often far-fetched. How many Democrats called George W. Bush a “fascist” and used that term a lot when Ronald Reagan was president? How many conservatives called Barack Obama a Communist and a Marxist, and argued that he was not a U.S. citizen and had no legal birth certificate? We all can easily see how extreme these kind of charges are.
But it is something else when a strong case is made. Stanley Kurtz has explained why he thinks Barack Obama is at heart a socialist. This is the opposite of meaningless name-calling, such as the examples I gave above. Kurtz, as I read his book, was not trying to destroy Obama by smearing him, but rather to shed needed light on the world that made our president what he is -- and that is the world of tough Chicago politics combined with left-wing sectarianism that emerged from the socialist movement of the 80s and 90s. “In the name of broadening the political discussion,” Podhoretz observes, “a group called No Labels will come into being with the purpose of … labeling. If you ‘recklessly demonize’ your ‘opponents,’ you will ‘no longer’ be able to ‘do so with impunity.’ They will ‘establish bright lines no one should cross.’ In other words, cross the line and we will label you a ‘reckless demonizer.’ Dare to call Barack Obama a socialist and stand accused of exacerbating problems rather than solving them.”
One is certainly free to disagree with and to challenge Stanley Kurtz’s analysis as David Frum has done here. But in answering Kurtz’s own challenge to Frum, he has moved beyond that to arguing that Kurtz was labeling Obama unfairly in an effort to “delegitmate” him. I have already made my assessment of Kurtz’s book, which you can find here, and I do not wish to again summarize the reasons I find his account credible. What I do find unfair to Kurtz is Frum’s assertion that if one concludes Obama is a socialist, as Kurtz does, such a person is “not looking for an analysis,” but instead is "reaching for an epithet.” I would agree that others have used that as an epithet to attack Obama, but Stanley Kurtz is not guilty of that particular sin.
And speaking of demonization and epithets, what can one make of President Obama’s press conference yesterday, in which he called Republicans “hostage takers;” i.e., kidnappers? And what can one make of other Democrats calling the Republicans “terrorists” whom one should not negotiate with? Is this not demonization? Writing today at Contentions, J.E. Dyer writes perceptively that Obama came off not as presidential, “but as a leftist community organizer.” She notes: “In demonizing his political opponents, lecturing his base, and vowing to fight on in a long struggle, Obama appeared to be channeling his political roots in radical activism. He evoked an activist street fighter on the steps of city hall more than a president of the United States.” Precisely -- and this is exactly what Stanley Kurtz gives us in his masterful book: the background to comprehend how and why Obama comes off this way in the present.
We clearly do not need any kind of speech police to try and pinpoint when any politician -- including the president -- crosses the line and tries to demonize his opponents with smears. When that is done -- as is the case with Obama’s performance yesterday -- we do not need a new No Labels movement to identify the culprit.
What we do need is serious political dialogue, and I fear that despite their good intentions, Bill Galston and David Frum’s new effort will only serve to prevent that, rather than to stop unfair political smears.