By Gerald F. Seib

Wall Street Journal

January 13, 2014

The controversial new memoir by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates is first and foremost a kind of primal scream about what he calls “the broad dysfunction of today’s Washington,” a place where “getting anything consequential done was so damnably difficult.”

It’s only appropriate, then, that a group called No Labels arrives this week with its own new book, representing the next step in its plan to pull Washington out of the partisan feuding that wore down Mr. Gates.

No Labels is a movement, now three years old, of Democrats, Republicans and independents, from inside Congress and out, dedicated to the simple proposition that partisans in Washington ought to start talking to one another again across the divides—and that voters ought to start demanding such behavior.

It’s led by two former governors— Joe Manchin of West Virginia, now a Democratic Senator, and Jon Huntsman of Utah, most recently a Republican presidential candidate—and almost 90 members of Congress who have signed up to join a No Labels “Problem Solvers Caucus.” Dozens of them will be wearing No Labels lapel pins at President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address on Jan. 28.

Now the group is launching what it calls a three-year plan to turn those sentiments into action, starting with Tuesday’s publication of “No Labels: A Shared Vision for America.” Like the movement itself, the book has a simple aspiration. It spells out four big goals for political leaders to embrace, and then wraps those goals within case studies written by the likes of former Secretary of State James Baker and nine sitting members of Congress showing that, yes, it’s actually possible for partisans to work together.

While the book lays out these goals—create 25 million jobs in 10 years, make Medicare and Social Security secure for another 75 years, balance the federal budget by 2030 and make America energy self-sufficient by 2035—it offers no plan for how to get them done. That plan is to come later, on the theory that getting everybody to actually agree on goals is the only way to really start getting there.

“It has to be one step at a time,” says Mr. Huntsman. “This is an attempt to keep people focused. You can only talk about the small stuff so long.”

As a result, the book is more pep rally for bipartisanship than blueprint for how to achieve it. Cynics and skeptics will view this with, well, cynicism and skepticism. And it’s certainly true that the devil is in the tough, detailed decisions needed to reach these goals.

But the No Labels theory is that Washington isn’t short of detailed blueprints showing how, for example, to attack the budget deficit. At least three blue-ribbon groups have presented plans on that topic in recent years.

What’s lacking is solid ground in the political center where the two parties can argue, compromise and then execute such ideas, the movement’s adherents believe.

Thus, the No Labels three-year plan, which is to unfold between now and the 2016 presidential election. The next stage is for business groups, grass-roots groups and state and local government leaders to meet in July to embrace the goals.

Only then will the No Labels congressional group come up, in 2015, with legislative proposals to accomplish the big goals. The hope is that those bipartisan plans can help drive the debate in the 2016 presidential election year, a year that also will give voters the opportunity to take out their frustration on obstructionist politicians who stand in the way.

Mr. Huntsman dismisses a question on whether all this is designed to somehow set up another presidential run. Similarly, Sen. Manchin says: “We’re not a third party, we don’t intend to be, and don’t think we need one. We’re trying to make the two parties we do have understand there is a way, and we do have a forum.”

No Labels adherents in Congress think they made a small step forward during last October’s government shutdown, when they met regularly as a group and some members came up with a proposal to get the government reopened. It wasn’t adopted, but they believe it may have helped get a broader conversation going.

In truth, the first problem to attack is an air of defeatism in Washington—a feeling that recent years’ failure to tackle big issues means it simply isn’t possible to do so any more. A capital that thinks that big successes aren’t possible stops trying very hard to achieve them. Thus does the nation that once sent a man to the moon now find it can’t devise a plan to fix its crumbling bridges.

No Labels isn’t an effort to mount a moon shot, though. It’s more an attempt to start getting the basics done again.

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