A Wild and Dangerous 2024 Experiment

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Written By Pinang Driod

“We are in this to win it,” No Labels’ chief strategist, Ryan Clancy, told me one morning earlier this month. Clancy and 16 other representatives of the beleaguered centrist group were staring at me through their respective Zoom boxes during a private briefing, electoral maps and polling data at the ready, all in defense of their quest to alter the course of the 2024 presidential campaign.

He continued: “And that’s a function not only of having a ticket eventually that can accumulate electoral votes—”

That’s when Nancy Jacobson, the group’s CEO and founder, interjected.

“But I just want to clarify, this organization is not in it to win it,” Jacobson said, a truly unusual statement for a political operative.

“This organization is in it to give people a choice.”

In the coming weeks, No Labels seems poised to intervene in the presidential race with a “unity ticket”—ideally one Republican and one Democrat—meant to appeal to the large number of Americans dissatisfied with the likely major-party nominees, President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump. Unlike Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Cornel West, Jill Stein, and other independent or third-party contenders, the No Labels candidates will likely be mainstream and, to use No Labels’ preferred language, offer “commonsense” values.

Even if the forthcoming White House bid ends up as nothing but a sideshow, it is still garnering attention: Polls indicate that a No Labels ballot line may well draw more votes away from Biden than Trump. It could be the deciding variable that secures Trump’s return to power.

Why is No labels doing this? Some of the group’s opponents allege that No Labels is nothing more than a money-raising grift. Others have suggested that No Labels is a shadowy Republican dark-money group, and that the “unity ticket” is a stalking-horse bid to help Trump. Yet another theory is that No Labels is full of idealists who, whether they realize it or not, are playing Russian roulette with American democracy, as one critic recently put it to me. Jacobson and the organization vehemently deny all of the above accusations.

I’ve spent the past several weeks talking with No Labels’ leaders, staffers, consultants, and opponents, trying to understand the organization’s endgame. I came away confused, and convinced that the people behind No Labels are confused, too. They’ve correctly diagnosed serious problems in the American political system, but their proposed solution could help lead to its undoing.

Nancy Jacobson, a longtime Democratic fundraiser who is married to the longtime Democratic pollster Mark Penn, founded No Labels 15 years ago. Back then, her goal was to build the voice of the “commonsense majority” and bring compromise to Capitol Hill during what was then seen as an era of division and dysfunction. (It looks bucolic compared with the present day.) The bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, an earnest, relatively uncontroversial coalition of Democrats and Republicans, eventually emerged in the House of Representatives as the result of No Labels’ work.

So many political observers view Jacobson as a Beltway operator that her colleague and friend of 30 years, Holly Page, who sits on No Labels’ board of advisers, came to our interview prepared to dispute that characterization before I even mentioned it. Page informed me that Jacobson is not, in fact “a conventional creature of Washington,” and instead likened her to a Silicon Valley disrupter who’s willing to “try things” and “challenge conventional norms.”

Disruptive is certainly one way to describe the group’s recent change in focus from congressional gridlock to the White House, where its leaders saw a much bigger problem. Given the timing of this pivot, one might assume this bigger problem they identified was a dictator knocking at the door. Not quite.

No Labels’ leaders look at the 2024 race and see failure on both sides underscored by a larger failure of choice. They see Trump lumbering toward another Republican nomination as he faces the possibility of conviction(s) and imprisonment. They view Biden as both far too old and having tacked too far to the left, a man who didn’t keep his campaign promises and abandoned his long-held reach-across-the-aisle mentality. No Labels raised $21.2 million in 2022, up from $11.3 million the year before. (The 2023 figures are not yet available to the public.)

In mid-January, I sat down for a group interview with three of No Labels’ leaders—Clancy, Page, and a co-executive director, Margaret White. Clancy told me that Biden had abused his presidential power in signing an executive order to forgive student-loan payments. He compared this decision to Trump’s executive action to fund the construction of a southern border wall.

I asked everyone to share whom they’d voted for in the 2020 election. Clancy and Page both said they’d voted for Biden. White demurred: “Oh, I don’t know if I want to answer that question.” I asked again, this time about 2016. Page voted for Hillary Clinton, Clancy for Gary Johnson. “Yeah, I don’t want to—I’m not interested in putting that out there,” White said once more.

No Labels’ leaders are hardly alone in hating their 2024 options. In late January, a Decision Desk HQ/NewsNation poll showed that 59 percent of voters are “not too enthusiastic” or “not at all enthusiastic” about the prospect of a 2020 rematch. A separate poll in December found roughly the same thing.

But unlike all the people sitting around complaining about the coming election, No Labels is trying to do something. And sometimes that something is described in grandiose terms. In one email to me, Jacobson shared that her college-age daughter had decided to enlist in the Israeli Defense Forces upon graduation. “I am scared for her as a parent. Terrified,” Jacobson wrote. “But how can I not celebrate her when I myself am risking so much for a cause I believe in?”

Over the past two years, her group has been working to place its name on ballots around the country. It has succeeded in 16 states so far, and aims to reach 33 in the coming months. In the remaining states, No Labels is leaving the task of getting on the ballot up to its eventual “unity ticket” candidates. Though No Labels would dispute that these candidates would really be “its” candidates in any meaningful sense.

The group insists that it is merely a 501(c)(4) social-welfare organization and not, as one might assume, a nascent political party. But not everyone at No Labels is on message. At the private briefing this month, one team member shared their screen with a chart boasting that 110,000 people were “No Labels Party Members.” When I asked about that specific word—party—which contradicts the organization’s central argument, Clancy, the chief strategist, said, “To the extent that this is convoluted, we can blame our campaign-finance laws.” A day later, a No Labels representative emailed me a lengthy statement explaining the difference between what a political party does and what No Labels is doing. I can’t say I was able to discern a clear distinction.

Perhaps oddly for an organization dedicated to political choice, No Labels also insists on keeping secret the selection process for the “unity ticket” candidates. Guessing the eventual ticket has become a sort of parlor game during an otherwise boring primary season. While still not official, Clancy told me it was looking “pretty likely” that No Labels would announce a ticket, though he added that no politician has “an inside track” to the ballot line. Larry Hogan, the former governor of Maryland and a former No Labels co-chair, was believed to be in consideration, but he is instead pursuing a Senate bid. So was Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a centrist Democrat, who this month went so far as to float Senator Mitt Romney as a potential running mate. “Third-party run, everything is on the table,” Manchin told reporters. A day later, he announced that he wouldn’t run for president at all. Dean Phillips, the Minnesota congressman challenging Biden for the Democratic nomination, is already a member of the Problem Solvers Caucus, and recently said he’d consider running on a “unity ticket” if the conditions were right.

Back in November, the organization’s leaders scuttled plans for an April 2024 in-person convention in Dallas. My request for details about a rumored replacement “virtual convention” went unanswered, perhaps under the logic that they can’t plan a convention if they don’t have candidates. So the conversations are happening quietly.

More generally, the group is cagey about its internal operations, and won’t even share the names of its donors. (Harlan Crow, the Texas real-estate tycoon who has financially supported conservative Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, is one.)

Even once the ballot-access work is finished and the candidates are secured, No Labels’ plan seems quixotic. In the United States, it remains nearly impossible for a third-party candidate to win a presidential election. The most successful third-party candidate of the modern era, Ross Perot, whom No Labels often name-drops, received just less than 19 percent of the popular vote in 1992 despite briefly dropping out of the race, but didn’t secure a single electoral vote.

In an email to me, Jacobson alluded to the idea that “winning” a majority of the vote is not necessarily No Labels’ main goal. “Abraham Lincoln was actually a winner with 39% running on the No Labels of his day—the little-known Republican Party,” Jacobson wrote. “Ross Perot in 1992 before he pulled out was actually polling at 39%, ahead of both Bush and Clinton. Most people don’t realize that you don’t need 50% to win—you only need 35% or slightly above that.”

Back in December, Clancy raised the head-scratching idea of creating a “coalition government.” He noted that if no candidate secured the requisite 270 electoral votes to claim the presidency, certain “unbound electors” could be “traded” among candidates. This sounded a bit like something out of a West Wing episode.

Around this time, another No Labels co-founder, former Representative Tom Davis, told NBC News that No Labels candidates could potentially “cut a deal” with another party’s ticket and offer electors in exchange for Cabinet positions, or even the vice presidency. A different path, Davis said, was that a contingent election could simply be decided by the House. Such an outcome would almost certainly throw the election to Trump.

Rick Wilson, one of the founders of the “never Trump” Lincoln Project, is a vocal No Labels critic. He believes the formerly centrist group has evolved into yet another cadre of Trump enablers, and that its ballot-access plan is far from benevolent.

“While No Labels has every right in the world to try to put somebody on the ballot, we have an equally sacred right under the First Amendment to object to it,” Wilson told me. “I feel like No Labels is doing something dangerous and definitely stupid,” he added. “Probably extremely dangerous. Likely to cause the return of Donald Trump. And in those things, I’m going to speak out.”

But it’s not just No Labels’ opponents who are questioning the group’s recent actions. Former Senator Evan Bayh, a personal and political ally of Jacobson’s for 25 years, whom she recommended I interview for this story, is fully supporting Biden. “It’s possible to be friendly with someone and disagree with them—or even occasionally strongly disagree,” Bayh told me. He spoke highly of Jacobson’s character and her integrity, but he also told me that several months ago, he expressed concern about her approach. “Look, I know you’re doing what you think is the right thing here,” Bayh said he told his friend. “But the consequences of error could be profound.”

In that warning, Bayh articulated the most common criticism you tend to hear of No Labels: that its leaders are, to use a tired political metaphor, way out over their skis. As the “unity ticket” unveiling supposedly approaches, more veteran Democrats and Republicans are beginning to take notice, and voice concerns. On February 5, a bipartisan group of 11 former members of Congress sent a letter to three No Labels leaders warning them that a contingent election would be “calamitous.”

Although it’s stocked with former elected officials and veteran Washington power brokers, No Labels can seem naive about the ugly contours of contemporary American politics. On a Thursday morning last month, the organization held an event at the National Press Club. All the No Labels luminaries were there: former Senator Joe Lieberman, the civil-rights activist Benjamin Chavis, former North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory. I thought the group might finally announce its candidates, and I suspect that many of the roughly two dozen other reporters in attendance assumed the same. No such luck. We were handed a purple folder containing a letter sent to the Department of Justice alleging an “illegal conspiracy to use intimidation, harassment, and fear against representatives of No Labels, its donors, and its potential candidates.”

The letter claims that Melissa Moss, a consultant associated with the Lincoln Project, told Page, “You have no idea of the forces aligned against you. You will never be able to work in Democratic politics again.” And: “You are going to get it with both barrels.” (Page told me that this happened last summer over lunch in a public setting; Moss declined to comment for this story.) In a video screened at the press conference, Rick Wilson can be heard saying on a podcast that “they”—No Labels—“need to be burned to the fucking ground.” Jonathan V. Last, the editor of The Bulwark who has contributed to The Atlantic and other outlets, is also heard saying, “Anybody who participates in this No Labels malarkey should have their lives ruined,” and “The people who are affiliated with No Labels should be publicly shamed to society’s utmost ability to do so.”

As the clip rolled on a flatscreen TV, the No Labels representatives looked out at the assembled reporters, solemn-faced. McCrory, the group’s national co-chair, raised his voice in disbelief when it was his turn to speak from the dais. “I mean, did you see that video? Did you listen to that video?” he asked. “Who do they think they are, Tony Soprano?”

Though scheduled to last an hour, the event ended after 45 minutes when the Q&A portion was abruptly cut short without apparent reason. The No Labels brass exited the room. Out in the hallway, journalists were told that a follow-up “gaggle” was imminent. But it never happened. Several reporters stood around talking for a bit, then, one by one, dispersed.

Later, when I spoke with Wilson about his comments in the clip, he said the video screened for reporters had been disingenuously edited.

“I am not a person who is known for holding back,” Wilson said. “I was shocked, though, when they elided a quote of mine in their press conference, where I said they had to be burned to the effing ground. But then I said the next word. The word they cut off was politically.”

The full quote does appear in the DOJ letter. But the whole episode seemed, to me, less an example of bad faith and mendacity than a simple loss of focus. Why spend all this time and effort complaining about your opponents’ tactics when you’re supposed to be selling the public on your ability to beat them?

As of now, the top of the “unity ticket” seems likely to go to a Republican—if it goes to anyone. During last month’s press conference, Lieberman said that the current Republican candidate and former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley could be a No Labels contender of “the most serious consideration.” Haley’s campaign immediately said she’s not interested. On Sunday, Joe Cunningham, No Labels’ national director, raised the prospect again. Once more, her campaign immediately said no thanks.

Nevertheless, Haley’s name keeps coming up in conversations.

At the virtual briefing earlier this month, one No Labels adviser, Charlie Black, a Republican strategist who worked on presidential campaigns for John McCain, Ronald Reagan, and both Bushes, told me he was personally rooting for Haley in the Republican primary and hopes she pulls off “a miracle.” Were this to happen, it’s unlikely that No Labels would launch a ticket. I asked whether it had been more difficult than anticipated to secure candidates for the No Labels ballot line. Black replied that the group had only begun talking to prospective candidates this month—an assertion contradicted by prior reporting.

No Labels’ recent shift in priority from Congress to the executive branch has caught many by surprise, and some of the group’s supporters are asking questions about the pivot. Last month, two members of the Durst family sued the organization over breach of contract and “unjust enrichment.” Douglas and Jonathan Durst, who are cousins in a real-estate dynasty, allege that No Labels pulled a “bait and switch” with their $145,000 donation in pursuing this third-party presidential project. In an email to me, a lawyer representing the Dursts wrote, “The commitment No Labels made to its donors was that it would not be a third party but, rather, a facilitator of bipartisanship to bridge the political divide. It has now broken that commitment and must be held accountable for it.”

Clancy, for his part, told me that the Durst lawsuit lacks credibility, and described it as part of a broader effort to make his and his colleagues’ lives “difficult” during the current ballot-access push. “I mean, they might have a leg to stand on if they gave money six months ago with some expectation this is only going to congressional work,” Clancy said. “They gave money six years ago and three years ago, respectively. We didn’t even start this 2024 project until two years ago.”

Clancy also dismissed criticism of the organization as fundamentally unjust. “Look, I don’t mean to keep pleading the refs, saying our opponents are being unfair,” Clancy told me. “Though they are.”

“The way that, just repeatedly, the worst motives are ascribed to No Labels, and to Nancy—it’s very frustrating,” Clancy said a bit later. “Nancy and No Labels are very comfortable operating quietly, and just hoping that good stuff gets done.”

During the private briefing, Andy Bursky, the group’s chair, told me unprompted: “No Labels’ ballot-access infrastructure is not the work of crackpots or crazy dreamers or amateurs. Rather, it’s an effort led and staffed by clear-eyed, sober professionals, animated by a shared concern for our democracy and, in particular, the choices that the two-party duopoly is shoving down the throats of the electorate.” A few minutes later, Jacobson chimed in with a more macro, and more confusing, thought: “No Labels will never, ever be involved in politics.”

Perhaps they assumed that everyone viewed the 2024 election through No Labels’ lens: that once ballot-access was secured, some patriotic, high-profile politician would be grateful to be tapped for the third-party nomination. So far, that hasn’t happened.

Near the end of my in-person interview with Page, Clancy, and White, I asked them point-blank if they’d lose sleep at night if No Labels ran a candidate and, as a result, Trump won the election. Clancy virtually repeated my words back to me, as if articulating them gave them extra weight.

“I’d lose sleep if I thought I was part of an effort that was responsible for getting Trump back in the White House,” he said.

“Me too,” Page added.

“Yeah, absolutely,” White said.

In an email, Jacobson told me, “Personally, I would never vote for Trump ever, nor would the leaders or the donors to the group.”

Her email signature features an animated GIF of Washington Crossing the Delaware with the words BE BRAVE and her group’s logo hovering above the painting’s choppy waters. Jacobson and her allies seem to earnestly feel they are doing just that—being brave—but in the fog of presidential-election war, they may also have lost sight of their enemy.

John Hendrickson is a staff writer at The Atlantic and the author of Life on Delay.

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