The Jeff Daniels character from The Newsroom would know what to ask the operators of an allegedly “grass roots” group called “No Labels”:
“Why won’t you publish your list of donors?”
“What’s wrong with having legislators debate the issues publicly? Isn’t that how representative democracy works?”
“How can you call yourself ‘centrist’ when so many of your ideas are unpopular, and in fact are even too conservative for most Tea Party members?”
He might have another question, too:
“What’s wrong with labels? Don’t they let us know what we’re buying?”
The Newsroom is fiction, of course. But then, so is “No Labels.” It’s the creation of overpaid political insiders who work hand in glove with longtime opponents of Social Security and Medicare, pushing the agenda of the wealthiest among us by exploiting the public’s understandable frustration with gridlocked government.
I’m sure that some decent people are attracted to No Labels without realizing that a label is precisely what’s needed. Labeling would tell them that the group was created by political hacks from both parties who scrupulously hide their funding sources but are associated with people like anti-Social Security billionaire Pete Peterson.
The No Labels website describes it as a “group of Republicans, Democrats and independents dedicated to a simple proposition: We want to help move America from the old politics of point-scoring toward a new politics of problem-solving.”
The group claims to oppose the “powerful interest groups (who) work to push our leaders and our political parties apart,” adding: “They demand rigid commitment to far left or far right ideology, and they ruthlessly punish people who step out of line.”
No Labels has never caught on, despite massive publicity and lots of funding. So why is it even worth mentioning? Because it sheds light on a much larger plan, a richly funded sales blitz that’s hyping far-right positions as mainstream opinion while touting lobbyists and political operatives as the plain-spoken voices of Main Street America.
We’ll be seeing a lot more of this crowd right after the election, as the No Labels crowd tries to sell us a Grand Bargain which protects the wealthy while demanding even deeper sacrifices from the rest of us.
“People on the extreme minorities,” says the No Labels website, “… have paralyzed our government at a time of grave national crisis. People on the far left and far right represent just a fraction of the American public, but they exercise power well beyond their numbers …”
But what does No Labels represent? Its three co-founders are a Republican Party operative named Mark McKinnon, a right-leaning Democratic Party operative named Nancy Jacobson, and a billionaire-funded operative named David Walker. These three Washington insiders say they’ll represent ordinary Americans against … Washington insiders.
Who are they?
McKinnon worked on George W. Bush’s campaign before becoming a senior executive at Hill & Knowlton, the Beltway PR firm whose clients prior to his joining included the tobacco industry as it tried to suppress proof that cigarettes cause cancer, and Bank of Commerce and Credit International after it was hit with faced drug-money laundering charges. It continues to represent a variety of dictatorships around the world, and is currently helping the oil and gas industry confuse the public about the health implications of fracking.
Jacobson worked for Bill Clinton, conservative Democrat turned Chamber of Commerce lobbyist Evan Bayh, and and the right-leaning Democratic Leadership Council, and has a raised large sums of money for “centrist” (right-leaning) Democratic candidates. She also reportedly worked as a de facto industry lobbyist, as a PAC Director raising money for Congressional candidates sympathetic to her industry’s interests. She is married to another Washington insider, Mark Penn, who is the CEO of Burson-Marsteller.
Walker is a longtime associate of right-wing billionaire Pete Peterson (who, as his press staff never fails to reminds me, sometimes also funds less political areas of economic research through his Foundation.) Walker’s work with Peterson, however, has been dedicated for many many years to the single-minded pursuit of a policy package that would cut Social Security and Medicare benefits while simultaneously lowering the top tax rate for the wealthiest Americans.
That agenda forms the basis of an American austerity program similar to that which is currently devastating Europe’s economy, and which has been packaged for domestic US consumption as the “Simpson Bowles plan.”
Bait and Switch
No Labels has a clever two-fold strategy: First, it packages far-right ideas as those of the “political mainstream” by ignoring polling data and instead finding members of the Washington elite in both parties – righwing Clintonian Democrats, plus Republicans – willing to present them as a “consensus” view.
Then it packages those proposals along with good ideas – and good-sounding ideas – so that it looks like they are the “reasonable” people in a world full of “extremists of the left and right.”
Last year the group announced its “Fix Congress” plan, which it claimed was intended to address Congressional gridlock. In its latest “grassroots” proposal, the insider organization addresses the Presidency. There are attractive ideas in each, but they tend to be trivial or unlikely to succeed. They’re there to bury the sucker punches in a swirl of cotton candy.
The good ideas include filibuster reform and up or down votes on Presidential nominees within 90 days. And I like the idea of having the President meet with Congress for British-style televised Q & A sessions. That can occasionally lead to illuminating discussions – and it certainly gets raucous enough to be entertaining.
Less attractive proposals include “no pledges but the Oath of Office.” That sounds good, but the “pledge” movement is a response to politicians’ broken promises. Sure, Grover Norquist and some other right-wing pledgemeisters are nutty. But is a “No Pledge” rule better or worse than giving politicians the unrestrained ability to go back on your word?
The nice but non-nutritious cotton-candy proposals include things like regular meetings between the President and Congress and regularly scheduled Presidential press conferences.
Then there are those sucker punches, like the longtime Republican proposal for a Presidential “line item veto” which would upset the balance of power. There’s also Presidential “fast-track” authority, which the New York Times describes as “a proposal to allow the president to send legislation to Congress twice a year that could not be amended but only approved or rejected. .. By preventing lawmakers from changing such legislation, a president could get yes-or-no answers on his top priorities.”
How would this work? The Times interviewed former Clinton aide William Galson, who “suggested that one possible subject of fast-track authority could be the … the Simpson-Bowles plan (which) included a cornucopia of unpopular tax increases and spending cuts.” Adds the Times: “(U)nder this proposal Congress would have to accept or reject the whole plan.”
See what they did right there?
In fact, supporters of this ill-advised and unpopular austerity measure have already tried to “fast-track” it several times. Had the failed Simpson/Bowles Deficit Commission come up with a proposal, Congress had agreed to subject it to just such an up-or-down vote.
Simpson Bowles isn’t a single policy prescription. It’s a smorgasbord of radical ideas which include the aforementioned benefit cuts; lowering the top tax rate for America’s millionaires and billionaires; deep cuts to other government programs; and the elimination of unnamed tax deductions that could slash employer health plans while raising the costs of paying a mortgage and raising children. And yet Congress and the President wanted to see it submitted for a single up-or-down vote, with no opportunity for amendments or changes.
A “fast track” vote creates enormous pressure on lawmakers to fall in line and denies the public the opportunity to hear an open debate about each provision of a bill. In other words, it’s ideal for unjust, impractical, and unpopular 1% proposals like Simpson Bowles.
“Fast track,” “triggers,” “fiscal cliffs” – all sorts of jury-rigged political mechanisms have been created in order to foist this lobbyist-driven, rich-people-coddling, unrepresentative set of proposals on the American people. An up or down “fast track” on such a broad range of right-wing austerity ideas would make a travesty of the (small-“d”) democratic process.
In fact, I’ll support any politician who signs a pledge against it.
The “Center” Cannot Hold
In order to force such unpopular ideas into law, their backers must also create the illusion that these proposals are reasonable and “centrist.” In fact, polling shows precisely the opposite.
Only six percent of those polled thought that deficit reduction and tax “reform,” two key goals of the Simpson Bowles agenda, should be a top Washington priority after the last election. Seventy percent of those polled were either “somewhat uncomfortable” or “very uncomfortable” with the Simpson Bowles proposal when it was released. Americans across the political spectrum have overwhelmingly rejected cuts to Social Security in order to reduce the deficit, a key part of that plan, with opposition reaching as much as 76 percent among Tea Party members.
When a proposal is too right-wing for 94 percent of the population, including 76 percent of Tea Party members – and when it makes nearly three out of every four Aericans “somewhat” or “very” uncomfortable – one thing it is not is “centrist.”
The Unpopular Front
No Labels is just one small cadre in a great army of mercenaries pushing the austerity cause. Their brigades have colorful (that is to say, silly) names like “Americans Elect,” “I.O.U.S.A,” the “Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget,” and my personal favorite, “Budgetball” – which I like to think of as ‘The Fountainhead’ Meets ‘Deathrace 2000’.”
Even if every one of these groups fails individually – which so far they all have – the hope seems to be that they’ll have the cumulative effect of making it look like there’s a tidal wave of support for Simpson Bowles austerity.
These programs uniformly attempt to stigmatize the majority’s opinions and interests as “extreme.” These front groups always try to stigmatize the popular goals of protecting Social Security and Medicare benefits and fighting Simpson Bowles austerity as those of a “tiny minority” which “ruthlessly punishes those who step out of line.”
There’s a word for a political system where politicians face dire consequences for defying the will and interests of the people. That word is “democracy.”
Ghost of Christmas Future
No Labels and its wacky cohort of well-funded fringe groups will no doubt fail again to win the public’s imagination. But the austerity crowd is still holding the upper hand. The President has a track record of pushing for Social Security cuts in a Grand Bargain. Nancy Pelosi has apparently climbed on board the Simpson Bowles train. These groups may lose in the court of public opinion and yet still win in the halls of government once the election is over.
“Ready to Fix Washington?” asks the No Labels website. Sure!
A good place to start would be by ridding it of the highly-paid insiders and influence peddlers who are trying to present No Labels and its unpopular ideas as the will of the people, rather than the whims of the wealthy.
 Several now-scrubbed websites state that Ms. Jacobson directed a PAC for the shopping-center industry between 1989 and 1991, engaging in the fundraising activities described above. We were unable to find an active website which confirms that, or any other which details her activities during those years. We have therefore characterized this part of her background as “reported” rather than “confirmed.”
(This post has been updated a to provide more detailed description of polling data and links to primary sources.)