The opposite of "common sense": No Labels campaign in 2024 is a revenge plot against Democrats

Why is former Democrat turned independent senator Joe Lieberman so invested in a third-party run right now?

By Heather Digby Parton


Published July 21, 2023 9:28AM (EDT)

Donald Trump, Joe Biden and Joe Lieberman (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Donald Trump, Joe Biden and Joe Lieberman (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Back in April, I wrote about the potential sabotage of the 2024 presidential election at the hands of the centrist group No Labels. They were signaling that they planned to run a third-party "unity" ticket to satisfy the wishes of the majority of the public who are telling pollsters that they are unsatisfied with what looks to be a replay of the 2020 election. The group already gathered a lot of money, which they are not required to reveal because they claim they are not a political party (even though they are setting up affiliate groups in the states that are calling themselves parties.) They insist they are not trying to be spoilers, but that raises the question of what they are doing. If you ask them, they don't seem to have any idea.

At the time I wrote that piece it was unclear if they were serious at all. There's a lot of money to be made in organizing groups like this and the argument is tailormade to appeal to wealthy donors who yearn for things like "entitlement reform" (especially privatization of Social Security and Medicare) and what they call "common sense" solutions to difficult issues like climate change. But it's not just about the money, that much is clear. The group has actually started holding events to sell their idea of a unity ticket.

On Monday, they hosted one in New Hampshire featuring everyone's favorite Senate diva, Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia, along with a congenial bucket of warm water, former Republican Utah governor Jon Huntsman. They called their gathering a "Common Sense Townhall," showing that they have a great sense of humor if nothing else. The GOP is going to run Donald Trump for president, a man who was twice impeached, tried to illegally overturn the election and is now looking at his third indictment in less than a year — and he's polling very close to Joe Biden. The idea that it's common sense for any Democrat or moderate Republican to run a third-party candidacy at a time when we are facing one of the most serious political challenges in our history is very dark comedy. There has never been a worse time to do something like this.

When asked whether he plans to be a presidential contender Manchin told NBC News:

"It'll be next year," Manchin said about his timeline to decide what to do, meaning speculation about it (and his West Virginia Senate seat) will linger into 2024. 

"Let's see where everybody goes. Let's see what happens," said Manchin, an outspoken critic of partisanship in Washington. "Maybe they'll come to their senses and start doing the job they were elected to do."

That's so him, isn't it? What a tease.

There has never been a worse time to do something like this.

Since Manchin is a Democrat, it's reasonable for his fellow Democrats to worry that the consequence of his candidacy would be to siphon off votes from the other Democrat on the ticket and they are justifiably nervous about it. The very close electoral college win in 2020 was notable for the fact that there were almost no third-party votes, unlike previous close elections such as 2000 and 2016 which didn't turn out so well for them.

Republicans, on the other hand, are so unconcerned by the possibility that they are pouring money into the effort, clearly thrilled by the idea. According to Mother Jones, all those state No Label parties I mentioned are being organized by longtime GOP donors and activists. They obviously feel that No Labels can only help the ball club.

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Most of the polling on this issue, from No Labels itself to a group that's recently formed to oppose them, shows that the Republicans are right. However, this week Monmouth University polled the issue and found that it's more of a wash and could hurt Trump more than Biden if Manchin were to run because more Republicans like him. And when Monmouth posed the idea to its respondents that the ticket could be a spoiler for Trump, only 7% of Democrats say they would vote third party while 19% of Republicans would. So who knows who this gambit would hurt more in a general election? I think it's common sense not to take a chance, however, given the awful experience of 2017 to 2021.

One thing is very clear: a No Labels ticket doesn't have a prayer of winning. So once again, you have to wonder why they are doing it? Katherine Miller in the New York Times pondered the question:

Is threatening to run a third-party candidate a leverage thing? Against whom? Do they think that the right unity ticket could reach the ephemeral threshold of belief where enough voters think they could win to make the ticket viable?

No Labels won't say yet who's funding it or who its candidates will be or which party will take the presidential slot. There will be a convention, in April in Dallas, with delegates, but who are the delegates going to be? One of the Maine voters who accidentally switched their party registration to No Labels? The group rarely, if ever, seems to mention circumstances in which setting up the logistically challenging mechanisms for a backup candidate would make sense: for instance, if Mr. Biden withdrew late from the presidential race. If Mr. Biden weren't president, he might even be the hypothetical candidate that Joe Lieberman, a No Labels co-chair — also present in New Hampshire — would be calling for.

Joe Biden would indeed be the guy his former Senate colleague from Connecticut, Joe Lieberman, should look at as the perfect candidate. After all, he's managed to get several big bipartisan bills passed in the most narrowly divided Congress in ages, he talks constantly about the friends he has on the other side of the aisle and makes it clear that he believes he is the president of all the people, not just those who voted for him. Does Joe Lieberman think that Manchin could do better?

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Russell Berman in The Atlantic interviewed Lieberman and asked him these questions and Lieberman couldn't really come up with any concrete reason why now is the time to throw a monkey wrench into the electoral system with all that's at stake. He insists that he won't back any effort that could put Trump back in the White House but obviously, a third party effort is designed for that very possibility.

So what's motivating this effort and Lieberman in particular? I think it's what's been motivating him ever since 2006 when progressives, tired of his endless centrist posturing, beat him in the primary at which point he became an Independent and never looked back. He caucused with the Democrats for the rest of his career but made it his mission to stab the progressive wing of the Democratic Party in the back whenever possible, most famously when he single-handedly killed the Public Option in the Affordable Care Act after supporting it for years.

Berman writes that Lieberman can't really come up with any real reason for opposing Biden except that "'he's been pulled off his normal track too often' by pressure from the left" and points out that this is a common complaint from Republicans and Joe Manchin.

But this isn't about policy. What these "centrists" really want is for Joe Biden to "own the libs" because in their minds that is the only way you can truly demonstrate your commitment to bringing people together and achieving unity. Biden, to his credit, rejected that stale, failed tactic and the party is more unified than it has been in decades. Let's hope they stay that way. If they do, Joe Lieberman and his buddies don't stand a chance. 

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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Commentary Democrats Joe Lieberman Joe Manchin John Huntsman No Labels Third Party