DAVID FARMER

No Labels or no substance?

Posted April 20, 2011, at 9:04 p.m.
Last modified April 21, 2011, at 9:02 a.m.

No Labels, a group spreading the gospel of getting along, brought its roadshow to Maine over the weekend.

Despite what groups like No Labels preach, the biggest problem in politics isn’t that Republicans and Democrats are mean to one another or refuse to work together. The biggest problem to finding consensus is that Republicans and Democrats don’t agree on a lot of important issues.

And the reason the political leaders don’t agree is because voters don’t agree.

No Labels envisions a large group of people, left wandering between the two major political parties in a moderate’s no man’s land, unrepresented and unheard, eclipsed by the loud voices of the extremes.

It’s malarkey.

Generally, people of all political stripes want the same things: good schools for their kids, a healthy community, a good job with benefits, safe water and clean air, a growing economy. But when it comes to how we get there, consensus is elusive.

In Maine, voters have sent mixed messages about what they want.

We know that a majority didn’t want to elect Gov. Paul LePage. But even fewer wanted to elect any of the other candidates. And voters had plenty of choices.

Both major parties failed to mobilize a majority of voters, a task made more difficult by the ease with which independent and third-party candidates, especially well-financed and well-connected individuals, can get on the ballot.

Even so, even with the deep divides, there are still times when the parties can work together, when an actual political consensus develops.

President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner didn’t cut a deal to keep the federal government open because they are buddies. They cut a deal because they shared a specific, although narrow, interest in avoiding a government shutdown.

Democrats and Republicans in the Maine Legislature twice in three months have passed changes to the two-year state budget with overwhelming bipartisan majorities. Members of the two parties recognized it was a necessity to balance the books, as required by state law and by the Constitution.

Likewise, Democrats and Republicans came together to rebuke bad science and ban a toxic chemical from children’s products.

No Label’s mantra is one of moderation, collaboration, nonpartisanship. They want open primaries, and they plan to grade members of Congress not on their voting records but on whether they are willing to work across the aisle.

It all sounds so reasonable. But it lacks any real substance.

I can think of numerous examples of bipartisan, garbage legislation: the authorization to go to war in Iraq, No Child Left Behind and the Patriot Act jump to mind.

Sen. Olympia Snowe was willing to work on national health care reform, despite widespread Republican opposition. Her participation on the Finance Committee in the Senate changed the Affordable Care Act. She had a significant influence on the final bill, but when it came down to the vote, she voted no.

Did she fail? Did Sen. Harry Reid? Did President Obama? Ultimately, your answer depends on how you think the U.S. health care system needs to be reformed.

No Labels says voters want results. But it doesn’t identify which results people want. And in fact, it takes a complete pass on social issues such as gay marriage and abortion.

Sure, we can sit together and drink from the tea cup of civility with our nonpartisan pinkies pointing delicately out. We can play golf together, have a beer, put aside our differences and cheer for the Red Sox and the Celtics (and never the Yankees).

But do we really expect that to bring us together on civil rights, health care mandates, tax policy or environmental protections? Our differences are rooted in different world views, which are then expressed by the political parties.

No Labels doesn’t represent a new approach to politics. It’s more like what political scientists Denise Baer and David Bositis wrote about in their book,Politics and Linkage in a Democratic Society”: Factions are “shifting groups of competing elites who are not linked to popular followings. Factions often compete on the basis of personal ties and personalities, not because of differences in philosophies of government or differences in political culture.”

That’s not something new. That’s the same old politics just dressed up with a new label.

As for me, I’m a Democrat and I’ll hang on to my label.

David Farmer is former deputy chief of staff and communications director for Gov. John E. Baldacci. A longtime journalist, he has been an editor and reporter in Maine, Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C. You can reach him at dfarmer14@hotmail.com.

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