As the political press continues to gear up for next year’s presidential election, I’ve been struck by how little attention many national reporters have paid to a potential third-party bid by the group known as No Labels. The organization, which says it’s committed to bipartisanship and political centrism, has secured ballot access in at least 10 states, and appears positioned to do so in others, as well.
This has Democrats worried. Third parties in presidential contests have mostly served either as after-thoughts or as spoilers, and it’s not hard to see a No Labels presidential ticket taking votes from Democrats’ likely nominee, Joe Biden, and assuring the election of the Republican candidate — probably Donald Trump. That’s an unpalatable option for most Democrats and even many independents, and it may be why some prominent Republicans are pushing for a No Labels candidacy.
It’s probably impossible for party leaders to leave strategic considerations aside, but for the rest of us, there are lessons for both parties in No Labels’ traction this year. Many Americans are tired of the intense partisanship they see at the national and state levels. And for some voters, the policies the group is promoting seem to strike an attractive ideological balance.
These include policy prescriptions that call for reining in spending to keep the national debt from growing faster than the economy; regaining control of our borders but ensuring a path to citizenship; criminal justice reforms “so career criminals can’t keep committing crimes” while at the same time, “keeping dangerous weapons away from dangerous people”; committing to make U.S. students number one globally in math and reading within a decade; and a bald statement that “no child should be forced to go to a failing school.”
Now, as anyone with experience in creating policy will tell you, there is a big difference between promoting noble-sounding ideals and crafting legislation that will help the country live up to them. Or to put it another way, the devil’s in the details. To this end, I’m struck above all by No Labels’ overarching key point — one that many politicians of both parties who are inclined toward the center have been trying to make for years: “America can’t solve its biggest problems and deliver the results hardworking taxpayers want, need, and deserve unless Democrats and Republicans start working together side by side on bipartisan solutions.”
There’s no doubt that this is what a lot of Americans would prefer — and, ironically, it’s what a lot of politicians could make happen without a third party nipping at their heels. In fact, it already is happening. The huge 2021 infrastructure bill? Bipartisan. A new effort to regulate AI? That’s a Democratic senator from Connecticut and a Republican from Missouri working together. Modernizing STEM education? That’s from a New Hampshire Democrat and a Tennessee Republican, also in the Senate.
Of course, work like this often flies under the radar. As fall wears on, it’s more likely that what we’ll be reading about in the press is the opposite: the House GOP’s talk of impeaching President Biden because of — well, it’s a little unclear why — and its continued brinksmanship over a potential government shutdown. Moreover, many ambitious politicians, looking for an edge, believe it’s in their interest to stoke division, since they can raise funds from riled-up partisans and then drive election turnout by inflaming their base.
The problem is, that’s no way to govern. Over the course of our history, bipartisanship has often produced better, longer- lasting legislation. It means a proposed law will reflect a wide range of views, win greater acceptance within a legislative body and among the public, and — just as important — last beyond the next change in power.
As voters, we don’t need a third party to help us make this happen: We can choose political candidates of both parties who, in both their rhetoric and their values, show that they can and will work across the aisle. But if No Labels’ appeal to ordinary voters can serve to remind politicians and their party leaders that there’s a hunger for centrism and bipartisanship in the public at large, then that’s all to the good.
Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar at the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.