When hundreds of lawmakers, political strategists, and activists gathered Wednesday at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington, something quickly became clear. The No Labels “National Ideas Meeting” would be the start of a new era for the organization.
No Labels is now running for president.
Standard non-partisan No Labels fare abounded at the meeting: Participants from around the country chatted about gridlock over sparkling water and fresh fruit. An elderly supporter approached one of the nonpartisan group’s co-founders and thanked him for changing his cynical tendencies. Members of Congress from swing districts waxed poetic about the importance of personal relationships on the Hill.
But beyond displays of the perhaps unwarranted optimism the group has become known for, something else occurred in the spotless, sun-drenched venue. No Labels — founded in 2010 with the goal of establishing problem-solving consensus and ending impasses in Washington — began laying the groundwork for a 2016 presidential candidacy.
The organization is putting together an agenda and vision for the country; wooing big-dollar donors; building grassroots support; and planning visits to early-voting states, complete with surrogates to articulate their ideas.
It won’t be nominating a traditional presidential ticket. More to the point: There probably won’t be a No Labels candidate. (No Labels Radio fans may be disappointed to learn that a Jon Huntsman-Joe Manchin ticket — each has appeared frequently on the outlet — isn’t in the works.)
No Labels holds higher ambitions: It wants every candidate to run on the group’s National Strategic Agenda. Essentially, the aim is to commandeer the 2016 presidential election and make embracing NL’s overarching goals a prerequisite for electoral success.
Its “National Strategic Agenda,” which will be developed over the next year and likely turned into a book, will comprise a broad set of objectives and specific plans to achieve them. Wednesday marked the start of the very public agenda development process.
The goals for America are hefty: create 25 million jobs and become energy independent in 10 years; secure entitlements for most of the 21st century; and balance the budget in about 15 years. In an interview with RCP, No Labels co-founder Huntsman argued that the group would be a major player in the upcoming presidential campaign by filling an ideas vacuum.
“All the candidates are going to say how they want to unite the country and how they want to be problem solvers, but nobody has told us how they’re going to do it. Nobody has any idea how to do it!”
Huntsman said his experience pursuing the presidency three years ago made him confident in No Labels’ approach. The former Utah governor describes a presidential campaign as a space with “no sense of direction, no idea for how to unite the country around big principles.”
But how can No Labels overcome the news-driven nature of campaigns and make broader ideas the central focus?
“Because of the tactical nature of campaigns — trying to win the news cycle and engaging not in strategy but tactics — there will be a huge need in 2016 for some answers,” Huntsman asserted. “So we want to have it teed up it. We want it infused into the bloodstream in New Hampshire and Iowa and have those early primary states talking about the National Strategic Agenda.”
He also suggested that down-ballot candidates will likely embrace the agenda because “being associated with problem solving” is something all political candidates want today.
Since its creation, No Labels has been criticized, and occasionally mocked, for its high-minded ambitions. The kindest skeptics argue that the goals are unrealistic. Others have asserted that the effort is counter-productive at best.
In one of the final sessions of Wednesday’s event, a panel convened to answer a rather simple question: “Can it work?” At times, the discussion (moderated by former “Meet the Press” host David Gregory) devolved into a disagreement over whether piecemeal or major legislation works best to advance common ideals.
Although attendees worked on establishing consensus throughout the day, it became obvious that creating a solid agenda would take the better part of a year. Policy heavyweights are envisioned in a bigger role, as generating plans to create millions of jobs isn’t something that can be hashed out in a New Hampshire diner.
The plan will require reliable evangelists to preach the No Labels gospel, should they hope to make a real impact in the next presidential cycle. Wouldn’t it be easier to run a No Labels presidential ticket to personify these ideas and prevent the message from becoming muddled? Perhaps a third-party candidacy?
“People are constantly talking about alternative political movements — which we are not,” said Huntsman, a Republican. “We recognize that we have a two-party system. We are working within the two-party system. We are preparing to infuse important ideas we’ve seen in recent years into the two-party system.”
He continued, “I suspect there’s going to be a real growing hunger for the real substance to carry this country forward.” The onetime ambassador to China repeated that he is a “strong no for 2016.”
So what would success look like for No Labels?
The Brookings Institution’s Bill Galston, another co-founder, said in his opening remarks, “When we have two presidential candidates in 2016 vying for the mantle of problem solver.”
Rough translation: No Labels isn’t exactly running for president. It just wants both parties’ candidates to do the running for it.