Imagine for a moment that you are a teacher on patrol during afternoon recess. As you scan the schoolyard, you see two tense boys beneath the monkey bars. One is holding his fists at chest level, a young fighter at the ready. The other stands rigidly with arms akimbo. He looks more defiant than timid, a boy confident in his ability to counter-punch.
You move in quickly, and the about-to-be brawl ends without incident. All is as it was before, but the boys are still angry, still ready to fight over anything. There is little doubt that they will square off again tomorrow. In fact, you’ve noticed that they square off every day and have done so since they entered school together many years ago. Same two boys, same pugilistic dance. The only uncertainties from day to day are which one will be the aggressor and which will have more support from his schoolmates.
There is so much bad blood between the two, so much dark history, that just about everybody accepts without question the legitimacy of the feud. But there are a handful of soft-spoken students and teachers who believe that if they can just get the two boys talking, about anything, maybe they wouldn’t fight so much. These would-be peacemakers even have the audacity to imagine a day when the boys work together to improve life for everybody at the school.
We admit this isn’t a particularly complex or well-disguised parable. The two boys described here aren’t boys at all but political parties, and the schoolyard where this particular juvenile drama plays out is Washington.
But about those soft-spoken teachers and students . . .
In 2010, more than 1,000 people representing all 50 states gathered in New York to launch the nonpartisan group No Labels, a movement to bridge the divide between right and left. Five years later, former Connecticut senator Joe Lieberman and former Utah governor Jon Huntsman are leading the group’s crusade to foster an atmosphere of problem solving in the nation’s capital.
Last week, Lieberman and Huntsman sat down with theMonitor’s editorial board to outline the group’s “National Strategic Agenda,” a set of four goals that everybody should be able to agree on:
∎ Create 25 million new jobs over the next 10 years.
∎ Secure Medicare and Social Security for another 75 years.
∎ Balance the federal budget by 2030.
∎ Make America energy secure by 2024.
Huntsman and Lieberman readily admit that the “how” behind the four goals is tricky, but drafting specific policy prescriptions isn’t the point of No Labels, they say. The group merely wants to plant the seeds of bipartisanship now so that they might bear fruit when the next president of the United States takes office. To that end, No Labels is asking presidential candidates to commit, should they be elected, to reaching out to congressional leaders of both parties within the first 30 days of their administration to begin work on at least one of the four strategic goals. The group isn’t saying who has signed on so far, but the progress or lack thereof should be somewhat apparent on Oct. 12, when the first ever No Labels Problem Solver Convention will be held in Manchester.
It’s tempting to use the word “quixotic” to describe the quest of Huntsman and Lieberman. After all, the American political system needs so many repairs – most notably to campaign finance and redistricting – that No Labels and its strategic agenda can feel like putting a Hello Kitty Band-Aid on a mortal wound.
But maybe that kind of snap assessment is part of the problem.
Listen to Congress, candidates and the media, and it’s clear that being cynical is the activity of choice on the national playground. But here’s the beautiful thing about a representative democracy: When enough people grow tired of playing the same old game, they can change it.