April 5, 2024 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

No Labels is gone for now, but ‘centrism’ is never going away

Its vision of “unity” has always been a product of makebelieve. 

Joe Lieberman, right, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Joe Lieberman, right, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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No Labels announced yesterday that it wouldn’t field a third-party presidential candidate, because it couldn’t identify one. “Americans remain more open to an independent presidential run and hungrier for unifying national leadership than ever before,” it said in a statement. 

Un hun.

“But No Labels has always said we would only offer our ballot line to a ticket if we could identify candidates with a credible path to winning the White House,” the group went on to say. “No such candidates emerged, so the responsible course of action is for us to stand down.” 

Yeah, no.

I mean, that’s one way of putting it. Another way is that No Labels already knew there was no “credible path to winning the White House,” because it already knew third-parties candidates can’t win. It already knew it would never find a viable candidate. It already knew it had wasted too much money and time. The difference? Now it’s official. 

We might recognize that makebelieve for what it is if not for the fact that No Labels’ donors are very obscenely rich. And we might recognize it as makebelieve if we’d taken a harder look at the career of Joe Lieberman. We never did, so his makebelieve seems like it’s real.

Yet another way of putting it: Americans are not really that open to an “independent presidential run” and they are not really “hungrier for unifying national leadership.” To be sure, I understand that’s what lots of Americans say. But I suspect they say that because they think it’s the right thing to say. They don’t want unity, though. They want victory. That brings us back to the original problem: third parties can’t win.

If there’s a serious lesson here, I hope it’s more than the obvious – that No Labels is a vanity project of very obscenely rich Americans who believe, contrary to all evidence, that there’s a broad appetite for a socially libertarian-ish, fiscally conservative-ish leader who somehow blends the best of the parties while winnowing out the worst of them. 

A serious lesson would be this. No Labels’ vision of a “unity” candidate for president is and always has been a product of makebelieve. We might recognize that makebelieve for what it is, moreover, if not for the fact that these people are very obscenely rich. We might recognize it as makebelieve if we’d taken a harder look at the life and career of Joe Lieberman. We never did, so his makebelieve seems like it’s real.

No Labels is gone, but his “centrism” is never going away.

It’s probably no coincidence that No Labels’ bid for the presidency died just over a week after Lieberman did. The former US senator and former vice presidential candidate was active in the group all the way up to the moment he died. I’m not going to recount Lieberman’s life. If you want to read more about him, I highly recommend this obituary by Erik Loomis or this reflection by Stephen Robinson. (For a straight news obituary, see the Times). My point here is that Joe Lieberman, perhaps more than anyone, embodied this makebelieve middle. My point is that makebelieve is immediately obvious with a little thought.

Lieberman was a Democrat who sounded like a Republican. That’s it. That’s the whole trick. I hasten to confess to being guilty of oversimplifying it. However, this pattern was so key to his life, and to claims made about the meaning of “moderate,” that it’s worth risking oversimplification in order to make that pattern clear. Lieberman was not a centrist. He only seemed to be. And he seemed to be, because he was a virtuoso at being a Democrat who sounded like a Republican.

This – and mostly this – is what made him a darling of the Washington press corps. Like his friend John McCain, Lieberman exploited the desire among political reporters for a middle position that seemed to represent a status quo that the push-and-pull between democratic politics and reactionary politics could be measured against. Like McCain, Lieberman’s politics were fairly rightwing. (McCain’s were very rightwing.) That got a pass, however, because he was a Democrat. Democrats, according to beltway logic, were supposed to be liberal!

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His centrism was a political fiction. We know this for a couple of reasons. One is that a Democrat sounding like a Republican requires that Democrat to mimic the Republican view of the Democrats, which entails misrepresenting or making things up about the Democrats. Lieberman did this all the time. If there was a prejudicial view of the Democrats, he would find it, repeat it and, in the process, validate it. 

The other reason is that while there is such a thing, even to this day, as a Democrat who sounds like a Republican, there is no such thing, not even during Lieberman’s long career, as a Republican who sounds like a Democrat. The former will be rewarded in some fashion, usually by a press corps eager to pay attention to “centrists.” But the latter hasn’t been acknowledged to exist since the age of Nixon. Lieberman’s “centrism” is utterly one-sided. It is, and was, a makebelieve middle. 

This is not to say a real middle position doesn’t exist. It does. But it’s complicated and nearly impossible to see when your understanding of a middle position is somewhere between the parties. The real middle slips around, depending on who’s talking and what they’re talking about, and it’s always drifting in the current of history. If there is a fixed point, it’s probably somewhere on the center-right side of the Democratic Party. That’s unhelpful to political reporters trained to see party associations as partisan and mired in politics. “Centrism” is supposed to be either above the parties or a mix of them. The real middle position, however, doesn’t care about all that makebelieve.

At his memorial service last week, according to the Connecticut Mirror, Lieberman was eulogized as “a vital voice of civility and reconciliation in American politics by former Vice President Al Gore, his partner on a Democratic presidential ticket in 2000, and by Gov. Ned Lamont, a key player in Lieberman’s exile in 2006 from the party in Connecticut.”

Un hun.

I mean, that’s one way of putting it. Another way of saying that Joe Lieberman was “a vital voice of civility and reconciliation” is that he was a virtuoso at being a Democrat who sounded like a Republican. In doing so, Lieberman betrayed his own party, time and again, safe in the knowledge that he’d largely escape accountability, because so many very obscenely rich people wanted to believe that the makebelieve middle that he embodied more than anyone else really was real.

It never was, but these people love Lieberman’s makebelieve. 

His “centrism” is never going away.

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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