Opinion | The Strange Unseriousness of No Labels

GOFFSTOWN, N.H. — “I’m not afraid of losing,” Senator Joe Manchin said, with some real charm and conviction, on Monday night.

He offered this in the middle of a substantive point, about honesty and political strength, but in a weird venue: the first town hall put on by No Labels, the longstanding centrist group now threatening to run a third-party presidential ticket if Joe Biden and Donald Trump are nominated. To think about losing, and not being afraid to lose, at this event went to the thing people fear about No Labels right now.

The idea behind the town hall itself was to draw attention to the group’s policy agenda, titled “Common Sense.” Those words were visible at least 26 times on No Labels backdrops and placards around the room at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College. Staff members wore “Common Sense” T-shirts and handed out “Common Sense” hats and “Common Sense” booklets. Inside those booklets, prospective voters find proposals on entitlements, a vow to keep artificial intelligence research rolling, some interesting ideas about changing the way credit scores work and centrist platitudes on immigration and abortion. The idea is: On this we agree.

At the actual event, though, in response to a woman’s question about climate change, Mr. Manchin, Democrat of West Virginia, and John Huntsman, a Republican former governor of Utah, ended up disagreeing about carbon pricing. (Mr. Huntsman brought it up, then Mr. Manchin volunteered that he’s always been against it.) Whether No Labels is for or against carbon pricing was seemingly never resolved at the event, even though it’s exactly the kind of thing two No Labels-types would agree on during a panel in Aspen or Davos. Faced with the minor disproof of concept, the event’s moderator asked the pair, “If there is a Republican and a Democrat who are in the White House, together, how would that work?”

“It would work a helluva lot better than what we have today,” Mr. Huntsman cracked to laughter and so forth from the crowd. The moderator tried again: How would this actually work?

“Nobody knows because we’ve never tried it,” Mr. Huntsman replied, which produced a slight hitch in the crowd, since people’s tolerance for the unknown has probably decreased over the past decade. “Well, they tried it in 1864,” Mr. Manchin, added, which produced an uneasier noise in the crowd.

People talk about this thing as if it must be a dark-money plot to tip the election Donald Trump’s way. But while No Labels says it will proceed only if it thinks the unity ticket could actually win, the compelling, magnetic quality of this effort is its opaqueness. It’s really not clear what exactly No Labels is doing or why.

At times, the entire enterprise seems more like an attractive market opportunity (the opportunity made possible by our national unhappiness) — like seeing a spike in electric vehicle production and buying up mineral rights to mine lithium. But even then, it’s not clear who in the No Labels universe believes what: Is threatening to run a third-party candidate a leverage thing? Against whom? Do they think that the right unity ticket could reach the ephemeral threshold of belief where enough voters think they could win to make the ticket viable?

No Labels won’t say yet who’s funding it, or who its candidates will be or which party will take the presidential slot. There will be a convention, in April in Dallas, with delegates, but who are the delegates going to be? One of the Maine voters who accidentally switched their party registration to No Labels? The group rarely if ever seems to mention the circumstance where setting up the logistically challenging mechanisms for a backup candidate would make sense: for instance, if Mr. Biden withdrew late from the presidential race. If Mr. Biden weren’t president, he might even be the hypothetical candidate that Joe Lieberman, a No Labels co-chair — also present in New Hampshire — would be calling for.

At least one No Labels board member has quit over the likelihood that the group could help re-elect Mr. Trump. At least one local chapter says it isn’t interested in the idea of a third-party run. On the anniversary of D-Day, Third Way (a different centrist group) convened a wide array of figures, including former Obama campaign advisers and former senators such as Heidi Heitkamp, to meet about how to stop No Labels. Dick Gephardt, a former House majority leader, is planning to establish a different group to stop No Labels.

Since its beginning more than a decade ago, No Labels has taken on a dislocated, strange quality. Nine years ago, Mr. Manchin actually quit when the group endorsed Republican Cory Gardner (who is no longer in the Senate) against Democrat Mark Udall (also no longer in the Senate). In 2015, two of the three senators who were members of the group’s Problem Solvers Caucus were Republican Kelly Ayotte (who lost in 2016) and Democrat Bill Nelson (who lost in 2018). People tend to become “bipartisan problem solvers” in districts and states that routinely flip back and forth between parties. For a long time, No Labels members have been disappearing, or about to disappear or reappearing after a loss in this way.

But it’s not just impermanence — there’s always been a kind of detachment from reality, too. No Labels is dedicated to bipartisanship and working together, leaning on the ways staying in Washington for decades creates the kind of personal, fruitful relationships better able to solve problems. Zoom out, though, and the entire life span of No Labels coincides with a period defined by how much voters hate Washington.

In our time of No Labels, politics has taken such an apocalyptic, nihilistic turn that a mob tried to ransack the Capitol while we were midway through a once-a-century pandemic. It’s hard to believe sometimes that when robots can think and it’s 120 degrees in Arizona, No Labels is throwing out PoliSci seminar ideas about rejiggering how speakers of the House are chosen. The “Common Sense” booklet mentions, in a section on how expensive health care is, how Congress hasn’t tackled tort reform. Whose fault was that?

No Labels’s dissociation from the problems it identifies comes through in weirder, more absurd, more hostile ways at times. At the event this week, a reporter asked Chris Sununu, the governor of New Hampshire, whether he’d endorse a No Labels candidate, to which he immediately replied, “I’m a Republican!” while what sounded like Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” played over the loudspeakers.

In May, when a Problem Solvers Caucus member, Representative Brad Schneider of Illinois, said he wasn’t into this idea of a third-party ticket, No Labels sent this insane text to voters: “We were alarmed to learn that your U.S. Rep. Brad Schneider recently attacked the notion that you should have more choices in the 2024 presidential election.”

On Monday night, when the moderator asked about the widely shared concern that No Labels would throw the election in Mr. Trump’s direction, Mr. Huntsman said this was “the latest talking point” and then actually compared No Labels critics to Russian and Chinese authoritarians. “So if you live in a place like China or Russia — and I’ve lived in both, running both U.S. embassies — they don’t allow any choice,” he said. “There’s no participation. They’re complete, pure authoritarian systems. So when I start hearing people here say, ‘That’s not a good thing. You shouldn’t do things to expand and enhance our participation in the system. It might result in A, B or C losing,’ I say, ‘I’ve heard that before — but not in this country.’”

Alongside the group’s strangeness, there’s also been an earnestness that in the end, people still want the kinds of things they wanted before, in the 1990s and 2000s in particular. No Labels is this last refuge, a resting place inside and outside the two parties and a half-finished Washington dreamscape. In New Hampshire, the Manchin-Huntsman event drew a crowd that on the surface looked like a Republican event of 20 years ago — collared shirts in shades of blue. That kind of voter, in New Hampshire or suburban Atlanta or Colorado, can feel the Republican Party falling away from them in real time.

And the country can feel like it’s in fading, chaotic straits more often than anyone would like. Voters do not want what they seem likely to get in a Biden-Trump rematch. This fact is the firm but vibrating floor beneath the No Labels project and the panic it has produced — the recognition that we’re approaching a 2024 election that will make American voters unhappy. But how unhappy? Unhappy enough to resume voting for protest candidates? Unhappy enough to vote for a mystery unity ticket, only on the principle of their unhappiness?

I don’t know that the electoral effects of No Labels are as clear as people say. It’s possible that running Mr. Manchin and Larry Hogan, a former governor of Maryland, would peel off those old-school suburban Republicans who voted for Mr. Biden, or that those voters might be the ones who would otherwise stay home or return to the Republican fold, or that few people would risk a third-party vote anyway. What is real, though, in a deep and human way, is that plenty of people fear a second Trump term and are dissatisfied with how life is in America. And No Labels is here to take advantage of that sadness with a half-finished idea.

Katherine Miller is a staff writer and editor in Opinion.

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