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Wednesday, December 22, 2010

"No Labels" = No Ideas

Holding handsHaving people in Washington get along is the most important thing in the world. If Republicans and Democrats can't find common ground, then we're all screwed. Now, everyone join hands and sing We Are the World. This will solve all of America's problems.

Except that it obviously won't. Since Democrats and Republicans disagree on solutions to some very real problems, concentrating on points of agreement basically means ignoring things that need to be dealt with immediately. Worse, it means cobbled together compromises that make no one happy and solve nothing.

We're reminded of the consequence of compromise today, as President Obama signs the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" into law. DADT was a compromise between Bill Clinton, who wanted to eliminate the ban on gays in the military, and Republicans, who believed that homosexuality was a "lifestyle choice" that should be punished. In the end, we wound up with a policy that allowed gays to serve in the military, but only if they kept it a secret -- an absurd and ridiculous policy that actually ended up increasing discharges of gays and lesbians until 2001, when the Bush administration and the military started to get a little short on enlisted personnel. As compromises go, it was typical -- when you try to combine a good idea with a stupid idea, the good part becomes infected with stupid and you wind up with a 100% stupid idea.

Yet, there's a group out there championing compromise above all and centrism for the sake of centrism. We can only hope it fails as completely as it seems destined to. "No Labels" is a group of middle-of-the-road Democrats and Republicans who'd rather get things done -- even if those things are stupid -- than fight over getting the right thing done. It's the same idiocy that paralyzed Max Baucus during the battle over healthcare reform; the belief that process is more important than the result and that "bipartisan" is synonymous with "best." Baucus wound up playing chump to Chuck Grassley, finally abandoning any hope of bipartisanship long after it became obvious to everyone else that Grassley had no interest in it. Pinning all your hopes on bipartisan agreement turned out to be a really lousy way to govern.

In fact, No Labels eschews even politics and, with it, ideas. A Washington Post story on the group ends this way:

Others said they were trying to lead by example. Ben Leming, a Democrat who ran for Congress in Tennessee this year and lost, said he has proudly adopted the No Labels attitude and tries not to use divisive language. But he said he still occasionally catches himself slipping into his old us vs. them rhetoric.

"It's hard sometimes when I wear the No Labels shirt and find myself talking politics," Leming said. "I'm like, 'No! Can't do that.'"

The unfortunately -- but aptly -- named Leming believes he can't champion what he believes are the best ideas, because he believes that would be wrong. In his weekly New York Times column last weekend, Frank Rich explained the problem:

The notion that civility and nominal bipartisanship would accomplish any of the heavy lifting required to rebuild America is childish magical thinking, and, worse, a mindless distraction from the real work before the nation. Sure, it would be swell if rhetorical peace broke out in Washington -- or on cable news networks -- but given that American politics have been rancorous since Boston's original Tea Party, wishing will not make it so. Bipartisanship is equally extinct -- as made all too evident this month by the pathetic fate of the much-hyped Simpson-Bowles deficit commission. Less than a week after the panel released its recommendations, the Democratic president and the Republican Congressional leadership both signed off on a tax-cut package that made a mockery of all its proposals by adding another $858 billion to the deficit. Even the Iraq Study Group -- Washington’s last stab at delegating tough choices to a blue-ribbon bipartisan commission -- enjoyed a slightly longer shelf life before its recommendations were unceremoniously dumped into the garbage.

And let's remember that the recommendations of the Simpson-Bowles commission were so bad that it didn't actually get the votes needed from commission members to formally send its recommendations to Congress. Simpson-Bowles was, in fact, a failure.

Most of what's driving all this is what's known as "High Broderism" -- a term for the belief that confidence in elected officials is more important than having those officials actually accomplish anything. Broderism involves a lot of false equivalency -- i.e., Democrats are just as bad as Republicans. And it pretends that Washington's political center is America's political center. As the name would suggest -- it's named after David Broder -- it's especially prevalent among the punditry, who want to sound sensible by striking a balance between political two extremes, while defending  ruling class.

But where is the halfway point on global warming, for example? The argument is over whether it's fact or fiction. If we strike a balance between the two, what does that look like? And meeting someone halfway on the issue is to fail to deal with it. You do what needs to be done or you fail to do what needs to be done -- there are no other possible outcomes. If you start making concessions to deniers, you wind up failing to do what needs to be done. Again, a good idea is infected by a stupid idea, making it a 100% stupid idea. Half a dam is no dam at all and it's a stupid waste of time and resources to build one.

Luckily, No Labels doesn't stand a chance in hell of becoming much of a force in Washington. Unfortunately, the same can't be said of the media. The centrist bad idea factory will find a home there, because it's where the whole thing started in the first place.


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