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The political fantasyland of the 'No Labels' movement

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By George F. Will
Sunday, December 19, 2010

As the new political group No Labels convened in Manhattan, a judge was issuing a decision that illustrated why the group's premise is preposterous and its pretense is cloying. The premise, obscured by gaseous rhetoric, is that political heat is inherently disproportionate. The complacent pretense is that it is virtuous to transcend the vice of partisanship.

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No Labels purports to represent a supposedly disaffected middle of the ideological spectrum. Some No Labels enthusiasts speak of eliminating "political retribution," presumably meaning voters defeating candidates with whose positions they disagree. No Labels promises to police the political speech of the intemperate.

That would not include the scrupulously measured ruling of Henry E. Hudson , a federal judge in Virginia. He says:

The Constitution's commerce clause empowers Congress "to regulate commerce . . . among the several states." If this clause permits Congress to punish the inactivity of not engaging in commerce - refusing to purchase health insurance - then Congress can regulate anything, making a mockery of the American project of limited government.

Eventually, the Supreme Court's opinion about Obamacare will be dispositive. Meanwhile, consider Hudson's judgment - that liberty and the crux of the Constitution are at issue - when examining the pieties of No Labels, which says its purpose is:

To achieve a government of "the vital center" that "makes the necessary choices" and "common sense solutions" to put America "on a viable, sound path going forward," with "free and open markets, tempered by sensible regulation," a government that "empowers people" with "world-class education" and "affordable health care - provided that it does so in a fiscally prudent way," and with "fact-based discussions."

The perpetrators of this mush purport to speak for people who want to instruct everyone else about how to speak about politics. Granted, there always are people who speak extravagantly, and modern technologies - television, the Internet - have multiplied their megaphones. But blowhards, although unattractive, are easy to avoid. And speaking of the unattractive:

Although the people promising to make No Labels into a national scold are dissatisfied with the tone of politics, they are pleased as punch with themselves. If self-approval were butter, they could spread it across America, if it were bread. They might cover the country with sanctimony as they "overthrow the tyranny of hyper-partisanship." But aside from No Labels' policy bromides, and its banalities about playing nicely together, how might "nonpartisan" discussion proceed concerning complex and consequential matters such as those preoccupying Judge Hudson?

"Hyper-partisanship" is deplorable, but partisanship is politics. What would it mean to have a "nonpartisan" position on the issue with which Hudson has dealt? People have different political sensibilities; they cluster and the clusters are called parties. They have distinctive understandings of the meaning and relative importance of liberty, equality and other matters. Politics is given weight, and motion is imparted to democracy, by intensely interested factions composed of people who are partisans of various causes.

Often in the year before the year before the year divisible by four, a few political people theatrically recoil from partisanship. Recently, this ritual has involved speculation about whether New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg might squander a few of his billions to improve America by failing to be elected president.

But Bloomberg, addressing the No Labels confabulation, spoke truth to powerlessness: "It's not clear that the average person feels themselves disenfranchised or wants a lot of the things we are advocating." Just so. Whatever their defects, America's political parties are marvelously sensitive market mechanisms, measuring every tremor of the electorate's moods.

Appearing with Bloomberg, who in the past decade has labeled himself a Democrat, a Republican and an independent, was Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, an ideological chameleon who recently labeled himself "a true-blue Reaganite Republican" and then an independent - one with no discernible difference with Democrats. Labels are not, however, ridiculous because ridiculous people treat them as disguises, or as flags of convenience for dinghy candidacies sailing without any ballast of convictions.

No Labels, its earnestness subverting its grammar, says: "We do not ask any political leader to ever give up their label - merely put it aside." But adopting a political label should be an act of civic candor. When people label themselves conservatives or liberals we can reasonably surmise where they stand concerning important matters, such as Hudson's ruling. The label "conservative" conveys much useful information about people who adopt it. So does the label "liberal," which is why most liberals have abandoned it, preferring "progressive," until they discredit it, too.

georgewill@washpost.com


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