Washington would have nodded approvingly. Last week a relatively small group of serious men and women, some from Congress and some from the private sector met, as they have recently from time to time, to discuss a rather radical idea—getting positive and constructive things done again in our nation’s capital. If we might borrow from Broadway’s “Hamilton,” we were privileged to be in the room where it happened.
We’re talking about the “Ideas Summit” of The New Center followed by the meeting of its parent organization, No Labels. No Labels consists of good and decent Republicans and Democrats who have come together to work constructively under the banner of America rather than the banner of one party or another. They have not abandoned their respective parties. They simply recognize that sometimes party loyalty demands too much, and that the nation’s business enjoys primacy over either party’s political agenda. They are serious men and women who recognize the wisdom of our first President and are chastened by his plea to the nation 221 years ago when he left office and bid his countrymen farewell.
Consider how prescient Washington’s words were.
“The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries, which result, gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of Public Liberty.”
George Washington would have been pleased with what was transpiring at the No Labels meeting last week. Already, about ten percent of the House of Representatives have formed a “Problem Solvers” caucus—Democrats and Republicans alike whose only agenda is a commitment to earnestly do the nation’s business. They go to work every day to exercise their best judgment, as the constitution intended, and not to bow down to the demands of passing populist or party sentiment. Our brilliant representative form of government was conceived with a patriotic commitment to reason and justice and order, and a concurrent wariness of the potential tyranny of the masses. President Washington recognized that political parties could become potent engines that too often might wind up being controlled by cunning, ambitious and unprincipled men who might usurp for themselves the reins of government. Washington probably understood the inevitability of the rise of political parties in America, but we think he would have rejoiced at the notion of a Problem Solvers Caucus and a movement such as No Labels serving as a gyroscope to keep the nation centered.
No Labels and the Problem Solvers Caucus represent the alternative to the very vocal interest groups that seem to have seized both political parties in America. Government cannot function without compromise, and the extremes on the left and right make compromise extremely difficult. It is no coincidence that our most effective presidents were generally great compromisers. Jefferson was a compromiser, so was Lincoln and Reagan. Even Richard Nixon, a flawed and as right-leaning a President as we ever had, understood the necessity of compromise. Remember it was under Nixon that we passed the Clean Air Act and established the Environmental Protection Agency. We even had wage-price controls under Nixon and the final abolition of the gold standard.
No Labels has attracted some of the nation’s best thinkers, and many public-spirited leaders from both the public and private sectors. Former Senator Joe Lieberman, co-chair of No Labels and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair both spoke at the opening session last week. Tom Reed (R-NY), co-chair of the Problem Solvers Caucus discussed what we’ll call the art of the possible. Tax reform, another run at passing some immigration reform, a massive infrastructure commitment and the corporate repatriation of trillions of dollars held abroad all seem within the realm of the possible. It’s amazing what can be accomplished or, at least, seriously attempted when we put labels aside.
So, we think George Washington would have really liked what we saw in New York last week. He would have seen an alternative to the factionalism and the type of tribalism that threatens our democracy today. Our first President was incredibly perceptive. He warned that political parties…“ agitate(s) the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms; kindles the animosity of one part against another; foments occasionally riot and insurrection, and opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which find a facilitated access to the government through the channel of party passions.” Sound familiar?