Jon Huntsman and Joe Lieberman know it’s tough to rise above partisanship – particularly during a presidential election. But they’re counting on New Hampshire to play a big role in showing the rest of the nation that voters can get behind a candidate who’s more interested in problem-solving than political pandering.
Huntsman, a former Republican governor of Utah, and Lieberman, a former senator from Connecticut who switched his party affiliation from Democrat to Independent toward the end of his tenure, serve as co-chairs for “No Labels,” a group urging politicians at all levels to put aside their political affiliations in favor of finding consensus on major issues.
Both men previously ran for their party’s presidential nominations. Neither won the New Hampshire primary – Huntsman finished third in the 2012 Republican contest, Lieberman fifth in 2004 among Democrats – but they still think this state, especially with its large faction of “undeclared” voters, is an ideal place to encourage bipartisan conversations leading up to the 2016 presidential election.
The two were in New Hampshire this week to promote the group’s “National Strategic Agenda” – a set of broad policy goals for the nation’s future – and to promote an upcoming “Problem Solver’s Convention” in Manchester on Oct. 12. The convention is expected to feature several presidential candidates, though the list has not yet been released.
No Labels also plans to award a “Problem Solver Seal of Approval” to presidential candidates who publicly commit to the group’s goals and promise to convene a bipartisan group of leaders to take on the process of negotiating toward at least one of the goals during the first 30 days of his or her presidency. The group has previously given out similar accolades to members of Congress, including New Hampshire Rep. Annie Kuster, who commit to working toward its agenda.
The No Labels agenda focuses on four main priorities: creating 25 million jobs in the next decade, securing Medicare and Social Security for 75 years, balancing the federal budget by 2030 and making the country “energy secure” by 2024.
The goals stem from a national survey conducted in 2013, which asked people to pick from a list of about 80 goals they would like to see the country pursue. The sample size for the survey was about 1,000, according to No Labels spokesman Ryan Clancy.
No Labels identified, from those responses, a set of goals that garnered support from respondents across party lines. If a goal gained strong support from members of one party but significantly less enthusiastic support from members of another, Clancy said, those were generally set aside. Once the priority issues were identified, Clancy said the group turned to “policy experts from both sides of the aisle” to refine the direction of the goals.
Lieberman and Huntsman, in a conversation with the Monitor this week, acknowledged that other realities of the political process make achieving these – among other problems – a challenge. The two were united in lamenting the corrosive nature of money’s influence on the political system, as well as the effects of gerrymandering in contributing to more a more polarized electorate and, in turn, more polarized elected officials.
“It isn’t the net amount of dollars – that doesn’t concern me as much as the concentration of giving, which is the cancer,” Huntsman said. “Because therein lies the political power, and the ability to create super PACS, which today are more powerful than political parties.”
With this in mind, the pair said the group is forgoing – for now – a focus on campaign finance reform or other changes to the political process in favor of priorities that, in their view, are more realistic to accomplish in the short-term.
“The existing campaign finance system is a problem, but we think it can be surmounted with the kind of effort that we’re trying to stimulate, both in the incoming president and in members of Congress,” Lieberman said. “I’ve been part of efforts to reform the campaign finance system in my years in the Senate, and some of them were successful, some not. But now you have these Supreme Court decisions, which, unless there’s a premise to overturn them, then you’ve got to have a constitutional amendment – and that’s a hell of a process.”
The pair also acknowledged that the four strategic goals set by No Labels are somewhat vague. Achieving “energy security,” for example, could entail any number of pathways.
“We tried to phrase them, frankly, in a way that would make them easiest to embrace,” Lieberman explained. “In other words, these are the goals. The next step is to sit down and negotiate compromise.”
Some other policy issues not explicitly addressed in the goals, Huntsman added, could still be tackled as part of the solutions. Improving education, he suggested, is a key part of creating more jobs; an energy agenda, too, would have to address climate.
The current political process – not to mention the modern media landscape, seemingly as divisive as ever – indeed makes it difficult to pursue rational discussions on these and other serious issues, the two noted. Encouraging more voters to participate from the outset, Huntsman suggested, is one path toward reversing this trend.
“When you have a fraction of the folks turn out . . . you have the good old fashioned pandering to those elephants that shapes the early phase of the campaign,” Huntsman said. “And then candidates get locked into certain rigid ideological positions that they can’t reverse themselves from – or, if they do, they lose the one thing voters are looking for, which is a sense of authenticity.”
New Hampshire, Huntsman said, offers an antidote to that trajectory through its open primary process – which allows undeclared voters to participate – and its relatively high voter turnout.
“Candidates come here,” Huntsman said, “and they can’t pander to one segment of the population and expect to survive.”