Manchin was not actually so dour. Livestream here.

The unbearable lightness of No Labels’ “Common Sense” (unmetered)

Lessig

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The reform organization No Labels launched their “Common Sense” campaign at St. Anselm’s in New Hampshire Monday with talks by West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, and former Utah governor and presidential candidate Jon Huntsman. The group is considering a third-party challenge in 2024. Manchin and Huntsman are said to be leading contenders. That prospect has terrified both Democrats and Republicans, who fear that this is a plan to spoil an election, not one to remake American politics.

Yet few of the hundreds attending on Monday appeared to share that fear. The audience — said by the venue to be the largest it had seen—seemed excited about the idea of a more balanced politics. One questioner asked how they might inspire others in New Hampshire to be “brave.” Manchin told them to think of their kids. No one speaks of “bipartisanship” in DC, he reported to an outraged audience. No Labels could change that. The first step was to ensure that there was not a simple rematch between the current and the former President in the 2024 election. If by Super Tuesday they had not achieved that objective, then, Manchin promised, they would run their own candidates on a bipartisan ticket. (It wasn’t clear what that test required: If either party nominated someone different, would No Labels stand down? Or are they demanding that neither Biden nor Trump be nominees, in which case they are simply promising a third-party run.)

Yet as always with American politics, it is hard to separate the real from the pure show. Yes, there are extremes in Washington. But is Joe “Bipartisanship” Biden really among those extremes? The kind of governing Manchin and Huntsman were promising is precisely the kind of governing Biden was actually achieving, or at least trying to achieve—a fact unnoted by anyone, including the moderator. And to the extent he was being blocked, that blocking was by Congress.

So what in the “Common Sense” plan is there to address the deep dysfunction in Congress?

The answer is literally nothing. The plan is full of what Congress “should” do, but offers exactly no reforms of how Congress actually functions. Indeed, though the organizers said that the plan was drawn from “tens of thousands” of conversations with “ordinary Americans,” completely absent from the Common Sense plan was any strategy for dealing with what most polls identify as among the most important concerns of Americans — the deep dysfunction and “corruption” of Congress. A recent survey of 2024 likely voters in Senate and House battlegrounds districts conducted by Global Strategy Group for Democracy SENTRY found 81% identifying “ending the big money, special interest control of Washington politicians” as either a “top” or “major” priority. No Labels apparently missed those 81% in their “tens of thousands” of interviews, because literally not a single proposed change in the “Common Sense” plan addresses “the big money, special interest control of Washington politicians.”

This is not a surprise for anyone following the “reform” work of No Labels. In 2021, a leaked audio recording of a meeting with No Labels supporters and Joe Manchin revealed the extensive work the group was doing to block reform of the filibuster. The filibuster, it turned out, enhanced the power of the group to push the policies it cared about. And it amplified the significance of the large dollar donations (“$50,000 checks”) that No Labels co-founder Andrew Burskey bragged it could deliver. No Labels is not a group working to change “the big money, special interest control of Washington politicians.” To the contrary, a decade into its work, it has learned, like everyone in that town, how best to leverage its dark money to its own legislative ends.

The continued commitment to the filibuster is the clearest signal that there is little common sense in the No Labels plan. Under the current norms of the Senate, any Senator can require that any bill (except appropriations and some nominations) needs the support of 60 senators before the Senate can vote the bill up or down. That rule empowers the extremes, not “common sense.” 60 votes means that 41 Senators can block a bill from becoming law. If you collected the Senators from the 21 smallest states who supported Donald Trump with at least a 10-point margin, that would be enough to block anything. Yet those 21 states would represent just 21% of America — and most extreme 21% of America. This is the opposite of bipartisan common sense, but Manchin defends this modern rule even against his own democracy reform legislation.

Both Huntsman and Manchin seemed to recognize the incompleteness in the Common Sense plan. Unpromoted, they both mentioned Citizens United. Manchin said he would support a vote in Congress to overturn Citizens United. It’s not quite clear how Congress gets to overturn a constitutional ruling, or whether that vote would be subject to the filibuster. What is clear is that nothing in the “democracy” section of the Common Sense plan says anything about dark money, or big money or corrupting money of any kind. There’s a commitment to better civics education, and an obligation to public service. Social media companies should not be allowed to “censor”; neither should employers. And yes, “legal voters” should have the right to vote. But there is nothing to address the corruption that most Americans associate with their government, and which has decimated trust in both Congress and the Supreme Court. If this is a reform plan, it is Hamlet without the prince.

And yet, if the audience at St. Anselm’s represents New Hampshire voters at all, it is clear that No Labels is humming a tune that many already know. We are all desperate for a different politics. And both parties have failed to convince us that they could build anything different. Manchin and Huntsman didn’t need to persuade anyone of that fact. Everyone took it for granted. And thus can No Labels leverage a powerful and existing sentiment, even while offering nothing of substance to address the root of the problems we all agree are there.

This is a dangerous reality. Donald Trump leveraged that same frustration in 2016 with a similarly substanceless plan. It is easy to see No Labels doing the same this year with an equally frustrated middle. Given the absence of rank-choice voting and the way our Electoral College works, No Labels is certain to assure that no candidate gets a majority of the popular vote. And any state victory by the No Labels ticket is likely to shift the choice of president from the people to Congress. How a minority president selected by Congress gets a mandate to knit together bipartisanship is not explained, at least not in this version of the Common Sense plan.

But it would be a serious mistake for the Democrats to ignore this challenge. The most striking fact about the GSG survey is that Democrats are not strongly associated with reform, even though only Democrats have pressed for anti-corruption and voting rights legislation in Congress. Democrats must change that perception. Biden should promise a bold anti-corruption package of legislation in Congress, if enough Democrats take control — legislation that would build on the For the People Act, but be framed as taking on “the big money, special interest control of Washington politicians” first. Biden could complement that commitment with a promise to press for filibuster reform, and a change in the rules of the Senate to disable single senators from blocking critical appointments, like Alabama Senator Tommy Tuberville’s blocking senior appointments in our military.

And most importantly, Biden needs to reverse his position on the New Hampshire primary. Yes, New Hampshire does not look like America. But New Hampshire's democracy is the very best of democracy in America. No people in any state are better focused on the issues that will determine the 2024 election. No people are better practiced in listening to candidates and pushing back on bullshit. Biden should travel the state, celebrating his actual practice of bipartisanship, and promising that if New Hampshire helps him to a second term, then he, and only he, will take on “the big money, special interest control of Washington politicians.”

If he can defeat the influence of senators like Manchin, and escape the shackles of the most extreme filibuster norm in American history, then perhaps, this time, he can win.

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