Within a week after its official launch, the No Labels movement—which I helped found—has accomplished a hitherto unimaginable feat: It has united a bitterly divided commentariat. Tribunes of left and right have issued issue denunciations and pronounced anathemas. Polarization, they say, is a wonderful thing, and those who would weaken it are at best deluded and naïve. Civility is a euphemism for the prissy repression of uninhibited democratic discourse, and the self-appointed speech police should butt out. Parties exist for a reason, and if right now that reason is to beat each other’s brains out, who are we to object?
Starting from the poles and working in toward something approaching respectability, let me give the uninitiated reader a flavor of the bile No Labels has evoked. With his usual fine regard for fact, Rush Limbaugh said, “It’s so heartwarming to see a bunch of high-minded people out there on the left—you know, the No Labels crowd—coming out of the woodwork and paying the bail of the serial rapist Julian Assange.” He was referring to Michael Moore, who has nothing to do with No Labels and probably wouldn’t join if it were the last organization left on earth. Keith Olbermann says No Labels is “a bunch of fraudulent conservative Democrats pretending to be moderates and a bunch of fraudulent Republicans pretending to be independents.” I’ll let the reader decide whether this is a fair description of Newark, New Jersey’s Democratic Mayor Cory Booker or Los Angeles Democratic Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa or California’s Republican Lieutenant Governor Abel Maldonado. And that’s just a start. In a piece headlined “The Bipartisanship Racket,” Frank Rich, who evidently failed to read No Labels’s actual program, announced that there were no featured black speakers at the event. I hope nobody tells Mayor Booker or, for that matter, author former mayor Doug Palmer of Trenton and former Atlanta City Council Chair Lisa Borders that they’ve been drummed out of the African American corps. (Can’t the Times afford research assistants any more?)
Boundlessly annoyed, George Will inveighed against No Labels’s tone, which he described as gaseous, self-approving, sanctimonious, and mushy. Even worse in Will’s view was the movement’s assertion that there is something higher than partisanship. To be fair, Will offers an argument: “People have different political sensibilities; they cluster and the clusters are called parties. They have distinctive understandings of the meaning and relative importance of liberty, equality, and other matters. Politics is given weight, and motion is imparted to democracy, by intensely interested factions composed of people who are partisans of various causes.” Who could disagree? No Labels certainly doesn’t, and its founding charter is crystal-clear about it.
Here’s the real issue: How are we to proceed when the two political parties are more polarized than at any time since the 1890s and either party can hope to get its unfettered way for very long? Our real choices reduce to two: gridlock, or the kind of sustained and open-minded conversation between the parties that we haven’t seen in a long time. The proponents of gridlock aren’t paying attention to our country’s decline, at home and abroad. They think that time is still on our side and that we can afford to waste the next two years in partisan fighting. It isn’t, and we can’t.
That leaves compromise, which can be achieved only through negotiation. To negotiate is not to leave one’s principles behind; it is to behave the way serious politicians must. It is to adopt what Max Weber called the “ethic of responsibility”—a concern for the consequences of one’s actions—as opposed to the “ethic of intention,” which focuses on maintaining the purity of one’s principles and the spotlessness of one’s soul. Taking responsibility for the wellbeing of the country as a whole means acknowledging that on occasion the demands of partisanship must give way. That proposition—which is neither vacuous nor trivial—is at the core of No Labels. I’d be happy to debate it with Mr. Will, anywhere, anytime.
For his part, Mr. Rich claims that by advocating a greater measure of civility and bipartisan accommodation, No Labels “ends up being a damning indictment of just how out of touch the mainstream political-media elite remains” with the people’s real sentiments. Well, let’s see. A Pew Research Center survey released a week after the election found that “most Americans (55%) say that Republican leaders in Congress should work with Barack Obama, even if that disappoints some of their supporters.” And the people think it should be reciprocal: “Even more (62%) want Obama to cooperate with GOP leaders, even if that disappoints some Democrats.” At roughly the same time, a bipartisan survey team—the Democratic firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner (GQR) and Resurgent Republic, a Republican Group—asked their respondents to choose between two propositions: “Leadership is about taking principled stands, and I want my elected leaders to stand up for what they believe in, even if it means that legislation on important issues does not pass”; and “Governing is about compromise, and I want my elected officials to work with the other side to find common ground and pass legislation on important issues.” Thirty-two percent wanted their leaders to stand fast; 61 percent wanted them to work together. A month later, Bloomberg posed a similar question: “Which do you think is better for the American people—for the Republicans and Democrats in Congress to each stick to their principles even if it means gridlock and nothing gets done, or do you want the parties to work together even if it means compromising some principles.” Ten percent wanted the parties to stick to their principles; 87 percent wanted them to work together and get something done.
Aha!, comes Rich’s response, these aggregate data obscure the underlying reality by establishing a false equivalence between left and right. While Democrats are willing to accept compromise, Republicans aren’t. (My friend and Brookings colleague E. J. Dionne has offered a more measured version of this argument.) There’s a germ of truth here, but only a germ. Yes, the GQR/Resurgent Republic poll found that while Democrats come down 73 to 21 in favor of compromise, Republicans were split down the middle, 46 to 46. A recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found very similar results: Democrats 63/29, Republicans 47/47. But here’s the real point: The same survey found that Independents, who put the Republicans over the top by giving them a margin of nearly 20 points in the November election, opted for compromise by a margin of 65 to 27 (GQR/RR got a similar response from Independents, 61/32). Neither party commands a majority of the electorate, neither can reach a majority without the support of Independents, and neither can sustain a majority if it defies the desires of Independents. Leaders—both Democrats and Republicans—who spurn compromise over the next two years are likely to find themselves holding the short end of the electoral stick in 2012.
Barack Obama seems to be getting that message, even if the commentariat isn’t. And so are a considerable number of Republicans. Not only did 138 House Republicans and 37 Senate Republicans join Democratic majorities to pass the tax and stimulus compromise; eight Senate Republicans broke with their party to give crucial support to the repeal of "Don’t Ask Don’t Tell," and 13 more, including their third-ranking leader, Lamar Alexander, defied Mitch McConnell and John Kyl to put the New START treaty over the top.
A harbinger of the future? Too soon to tell. But if the recent tax agreement is the first step in a sustained White House strategy rather than a onetime event (and we should know by the State of the Union), the president could regain the political high ground in short order. By extending his hand, he wins either way. If the Republicans grasp it, as some did during the lame-duck session, he gains high marks for the kind of leadership most Americans want, and the 112th Congress could yield productive agreement on basic economic issues. If the Republicans spurn it, the people will see the GOP as the real obstacle to the kind of politics they crave. Whatever happens, No Labels will unapologetically defend—and support—politicians of both parties who are prepared to put their country first.
William Galston is a former policy advisor to Bill Clinton and current senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.