A group of Washington political and media insiders has formed a new organisation called “No Labels.” Comprised of Democrats, Republicans and independents — and supported by a few youngish corporate executives and entrepreneurs — their aim is to reduce what they call “hyper-partisanship” in order to facilitate a new, more centrist approach to the public policy issues facing America.
After convening a national meeting on December 13, their ambitious plan is to organise local chapters that will hold monthly civic meetings in each of the nation’s 435 congressional districts, establish chapters on 150 college campuses, create a political operation to monitor “hyper-partisanship” and a PAC to provide campaign funds for politicians who work across party lines “to move this country forward.”
What exactly is the evil they are fighting? So far, their approach is long on process and short on content. “Hyper-partisans,” their website explains, “use labels to demonize their opponents, enforce orthodoxy within their own ranks, and marginalize sensible compromises.” By putting aside labels, they argue, they can “offer a hopeful alternative . . . that brings people together to develop practical solutions to common problems.”
That sounds a lot like what most independent, centrist, or “swing” voters thought they were getting when they voted for Barack Obama in 2008. That didn’t turn out exactly as advertised. So let’s dig a little deeper to see what this new political movement identifies as the main substantive problems they hope to hear folks discussing — every month! — in the nation’s 435 congressional districts.
First, they submit, the US must remain the world’s premier economic power. To do that, they assert, we must achieve fiscal solvency, which demands that we reform our entitlement programs. But, they also acknowledge, there must also be “some new revenues.”
This statement is hardly controversial. Almost everyone who has looked at the deficit problem agrees we need some combination of reduced entitlement spending and higher taxes. The possible combinations are infinite.
Their reference to “some” new revenues seems to suggest a heavy weighting towards entitlement cuts. But in truth, merely getting local citizen groups to reach a consensus on the nature and magnitude of the problem — and the need for some combination of entitlement cuts and tax increases — could be very helpful. That is, the problem is not going to be solved with defence cuts, a peace dividend, or “fraud, waste, and abuse.” If this new group can get us to concede that we have to agree on a solution — whether it be 80% entitlement cuts and 20% tax increases or 20% entitlement cuts and 80% tax increases — that will be no small accomplishment.
But I’m not sure the problem here is one of excess partisanship. Alerting folks to the deficit problem was a lot of what the Tea Party was all about, and they certainly did not eschew partisanship. The problem is more one of apathy and a desire not to deal at all. But as they say, there’s no need to get hung-up on labels.
If we can educate the citizenry about the rather limited options for dealing with the debt crisis — which really are limited to cutting the Federal health care subsidies provided through Medicare, Medicaid, and the tax-exclusion for health care premiums, and raising some taxes on “the rich” to make the resulting pain politically tolerable — that will be a great accomplishment.
That, of course, is what President Obama’s health care reform was supposed to accomplish. Oh well. Maybe we can at least have the local monthly meetings televised on CSPAN — as Obama promised to do in Washington.
Second, for reasons of national security, they submit that we need an energy policy that increases the supply of energy from “diversified, clean, sustainable sources.”
No one could disagree with this, with the possible exception of the word “clean” — which used to be used only to refer to soot and other particulate or toxic by-products of the production and consumption of fossil fuels — and perhaps also to the leaking of radiation from nuclear plants. Aside from these items, every living being — even plants, and pre-industrial humans — has emitted carbon dioxide as part of the natural process of living on the energy created from sunlight. Until recently, such carbon dioxide emissions have not been considered to be either “dirty” or in any other way “unclean.”
Here, I’m afraid that “No Labels” needs a lesson in the proper use of labels. The term “clean energy” is a partisan obfuscation. It is meant to conflate soot, toxins, and particulate emissions with an entirely colorless, odorless and natural gas — carbon dioxide — that is essential to life. The key difference is that most “dirt” affects us locally, not globally. That is why a local or national solution to particulate emissions or toxins (like requiring catalytic converters on American cars, or even just on the cars of a single state) can make sense.
The same thing is simply not true of carbon emissions. A local reduction in carbon emissions is useless — except as an expression of one’s moral superiority, perhaps. That’s exactly why partisan environmentalists have tried to enlist the term “clean energy” to obfuscate the fact that any solution to the carbon emission issue must be global to be effective. Soot and toxins from Chinese furnaces may not spread globally, but carbon dioxide does.
Thus, even if there were a consensus that global carbon emissions should be reduced in an ideal world, the real question is whether America should accept any added energy costs that — because they are imposed unilaterally and not globally — will hurt us nationally without creating any benefit globally. If those attending the monthly “No Labels” meetings could agree that we should not punish ourselves unilaterally just to make our environmentalists feel better about themselves, that we should only shoulder added energy costs if the rest of the world does so as well, we could eliminate the most partisan aspect of the energy policy debate.
What I believe these two examples illustrate is that the problem with our political and policy debates is not too much partisanship. The problem, if there is one, is a lack of specifics in phrasing the issues and then engaging in strong and potentially quite partisan debates.
We very much need to debate and take sides. Hopefully, we can declare a truce on casting aspersions on the motives of the other side (whether it be the allegedly “unfeeling ” conservatives or the allegedly “unpatriotic” liberals). Also, we should not protest if the other political party comes to agree with our principles and thus “steals our issue.” That would be a truly destructive form of partisanship. But aside from those two examples, vague generalities and process reforms are not really that helpful.
We need to know where folks stand on a series of very specific issues. If that breeds more partisanship, I’m all for it.
Donald B. Susswein is a Washington lawyer who practices and writes in the areas of taxation, tax and fiscal policy, and financial institutions and products. He served as an advisor on these issues to the Committee on Finance of the United States Senate. He writes a weekly column for Benzinga every Tuesday.
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