At dawn of Trump era, political center sees an opening

Donald Trump himself defies labels. His rise to power may signal opportunities for problem-solving, Republicans and Democrats say at a convening of the group No Labels. 

Paul Morigi/AP Images for No Labels
Left to right, No Labels National Co-Chair and former Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, Sen. Roy Blunt (R) of Missouri, Sen. Steve Daines (R) of Montana, Rep. Kurt Schrader (D) of Oregon, Rep. Peter Welch (D) of Vermont, Rep. Ami Bera (D) of California, and Sen. Joe Manchin (D) of West Virginia, talk at the 1787: Constructing The Peace After The War event on Monday, Dec. 5, 2016 in Washington.

Presidential transitions are always a time of fluidity,  and therefore an opportunity for change. The old guard is moving on, the new guard is taking its place.

But the coming inauguration of Donald Trump is something else again, more than just a change of partisan control at the White House. It represents the potential for full-blown disruption, for better or worse.

President-elect Trump comes to office with no experience in government, and already clearly relishes flouting convention. He tweets with abandon, he shakes up foreign policy practices, he takes on major corporations.

Nominally a Republican, and to many a populist, Trump can be hard to label.

Enter the group No Labels. For more than five years, it has worked along the edges of government, trying to encourage a robust political center and facilitate bipartisan cooperation. It launched a “Problem Solvers Caucus” in Congress – more than 80 members, both Republican and Democrat.

But anyone who has followed Washington – and the intensely partisan divide that has produced gridlock on most major issues – knows that if anything, centrists have been losing ground in recent years.

That may be changing. Or at least that’s the hope of No Labels organizers, who plan to turn the caucus into a more coherent force, with paid staff, bylaws, and a formal leadership structure. No Labels founders think the moment may be ripe.

“The Trump coalition doesn’t look like the traditional Republican coalition,” says William Galston, a fellow on governance at the Brookings Institution and a No Labels co-founder. “So you might well believe this is a moment of greater fluidity and therefore possibility.”

That sense of possibility came through this week in Washington as Republicans and Democrats – senators and House members, governors and mayors – gathered in public and in private under the banner of No Labels and talked problem-solving. Issues on the table included infrastructure, health care, and tax reform.

But even if it’s too soon to talk nuts and bolts, it’s not too soon to imagine a new way of doing business.

“Disruption isn’t a bad thing,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (R) of Missouri at the conference. “The new president makes us think about different ways to look at things, because he’s going to look at things in different ways.”

Democrat Peter Welch, the sole House member from Vermont, expressed hope that Republicans – soon to control both the executive and legislative branches – don’t overreach.

“[House Speaker] Paul Ryan is going to have his work cut out for him, even though he continues to have a majority, because he’s going to have a wing in that party that’s going to push it too far,” Congressman Welch said.

Democrats' choice

Democrats face a choice, too, after last month’s disappointing election, says Welch: “Do we fight for failure, or do we put out an affirmative agenda on topics we know need to be addressed?”

Some news reports show a Democratic desire to give Republicans a taste of their own treatment. Merrick Garland’s nomination to the Supreme Court, languishing since March without even a Senate hearing, has embittered some Democrats. They are planning delay tactics of their own to stall Trump’s agenda, according to Politico.

Nobody is suggesting that Democrats fold their cards and give up. Their voters demand a fight. But they are also weary of business as usual, as are most Americans – including Trump supporters – and if they can get at least something out of unified Republican government by playing nice, perhaps both sides can claim victory.

New York Times columnist David Brooks sees an evolution of the American political center.

“What’s about to happen in Washington may be a little like the end of the Cold War – bipolarity gives way to multipolarity,” Mr. Brooks writes. “A system dominated by two party-line powers gives way to a system with a lot of different power centers.”

Instead of just “R’s and D’s,” he foresees a Trump-dominated populist nationalism, a more libertarian Freedom Caucus, and among the Democrats, two groups: a progressive caucus dominated by Sens. Bernie Sanders (I) of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren (D) of Massachusetts, and the Democratic “old guard,” led by Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer and House minority leader Nancy Pelosi.

“The most important caucus formation will be the ideological center,” he writes. “There’s a lot of room between the alt-right and the alt-left, between Trumpian authoritarianism and Sanders socialism.”

Which leads him to No Labels.

25 million new jobs

Calls for centrist policy are at the heart of the organization’s motivation. The group’s “national strategic agenda,” derived from polling, is based on four goals: 25 million new jobs over the next 10 years; secure Social Security and Medicare for the next 75 years; balanced budget by 2030; and energy security by 2024.

This agenda predates the rise of Trump, but with his election, No Labels sees additional areas for cooperation. One is reforming the tax code, and then putting some of the new revenue into fixing and modernizing the nation’s infrastructure.

The purpose of holding the group’s conference this week, says No Labels senior strategist Ryan Clancy, was to keep everyone’s eyes on the ball.

“We knew it would be a nasty election, and that when it was over, the default operating assumption for Washington would be, ‘Let’s go back into the trenches and continue the permanent campaign,’ ” says Mr. Clancy. “We wanted a moment where we could say, ‘Stop, let’s end the campaign, and focus on governing.’ ”

Goal: $50 million for centrist candidates

At the same time, No Labels is also making a bow to politics: Some of the group’s key backers have launched a plan to channel money – via super-political action committees – to centrists running for Congress. Typically, the most devoted partisan voters dominate turnout in primaries, which can doom centrist candidates. For centrist incumbents in Congress running for reelection, that may mean avoiding risky votes, lest they attract a more-partisan primary challenger.

Thus, the campaign to raise $50 million to spend on about two dozen races in the 2018 midterms.

“This super-PAC has really put some bite behind our bark,” said financier Nelson Peltz at the No Labels conference on Monday.

Earlier, in an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Mr. Peltz explained why centrist candidates need that extra help in getting “their” voters to turn out for primaries.

“There has been no reward at the ballot box for being a problem solver, and there’s been no penalty for being an obstructionist,” Mr. Peltz said.

In two test cases in this year's elections, in House races in Kansas and Florida, the two moderate candidates won their primaries.

Another source of hope for No Labels’ efforts came Monday afternoon, when 40 members of Congress held an off-the-record meeting with No Labels members to discuss problem-solving in the Trump era. Galston described the gathering as “a fruitful exchange,” noting that the legislators “came on time and stayed until the end, which is unusual.”

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