WASHINGTON — The presidential campaign thus far seems to be heaped with broadsides and broad promises. When policy does enter in, it’s often not fleshed out or bipartisan in appeal: Build a wall. Healthcare like Denmark.
Seeing an opportunity in America’s political polarization and gridlock, the nonpartisan group “No Labels” on Thursday sought to offer a dramatically different vision – one where Americans could actually find some measure of agreement.
The group’s “policy playbook” for the next president lists four national goals – and how to reach them – that have been poll-tested for broad support among American voters. Nearly 80 members of Congress from both parties and both houses back the goals.
The ambitious aim is to get the next president to commit as well, and to bring both the president (or members of the administration’s incoming team) together with lawmakers in December to talk through the goals and discuss how to implement them.
The challenge is obvious. The partisan tides in Washington are pulling in different directions. Bipartisan comity often involves compromise – a dirty word among many partisans – and can work against parties playing up their distinction in election season. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin is working on his own five-point agenda, which is aimed at pointing out the contrasts between Republicans and Democrats to give Republicans something to run on in this fall’s elections.
Beyond the No Labels agenda, its playbook offers a glimpse of an often-overlooked aspect of Washington politics: The solution to some of the country’s most-pressing problems is not rocket science. From No Labels to think tanks to congressional blue-ribbon panels, practical bipartisan solutions are plentiful. What is lacking is the desire, as American voters behave in more partisan ways and special interests protect their agendas.
But former Sen. Joe Lieberman (D) of Connecticut, co-chair of No Labels along with former Gov. Jon Huntsman (R) of Utah, also says that this election is a reflection of broad public disdain of Washington and party politics. Someone has to try to break the present political mold, he said.
“If we don’t try, we’ll never know,” he said. “This requires leadership.”
The goals unveiled on Thursday: creating 25 million new jobs; securing Social Security and Medicare for the next 75 years; balancing the federal budget, and making America energy secure.
The playbook offers ways to achieve these goals. Social Security, for instance, could be saved without raising the retirement age by raising the annual limit on earnings that are subject to the payroll tax, by employers and employees agreeing to pay 1 percent more in payroll taxes, by slowing the growth of future benefits for the top 20 percent of beneficiaries, and by reforming Social Security disability payments.
All of these ideas found broad support among the electorate, according to No Labels.
The solutions try to steer clear of highly partisan issues, such as climate change, by focusing instead on areas of common ground, such as energy conservation. But details in the playbook still hit partisan tripwires.
A payroll tax increase for Social Security, for instance, would meet stiff resistance from the no-new-taxes crowd. Big Pharma would not like the federal government negotiating drug prices for Medicare recipients. President Obama firmly resisted raising the federal gas tax to help pay for infrastructure spending, even while he supported a special “infrastructure bank” that relies on public-private partnerships for funding.
These ideas are hardly groundbreaking. Many of them have already been chewed over by the Washington set. No Labels hopes they can get airborne this time because they are backed by the No Labels “problem solvers caucus” in Congress. That caucus has a low profile. White it has helped to pass a few smaller bills, such as the so-called Medicare “doc fix” last year, it is still finding its way.
Said Governor Huntsman: “Things work by caucuses, and caucuses are driven by the numbers and if you’ve got enough people who are part of your caucus, you stand a pretty good chance of being able to get your priorities through.”