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A party without labels unsettles US Democrats

Rebel Democratic Senator Joe Manchin, Biden’s main domestic opponent, supports a non-partisan platform that aspires to a united bid for the White House

Joe Manchin, senador demócrata
Democratic Senator Joe Manchin, in October 2021 at the U.S. Capitol.Andrew Harnik (AP)
María Antonia Sánchez-Vallejo

Many are already calling it the third party, although No Labels bills itself as “a national movement of people who believe in America and bringing our leaders together to solve our toughest problems.” But in practice the group is exploring a third political track that could undermine President Joe Biden’s re-election bid. The launch of this alternative to bipartisanship, which tries to reconcile reds (Republicans) and blues (Democrats), took place this Monday in New Hampshire with the stellar intervention of the rebel Democratic Senator Joe Manchin, known for his opposition to some of Biden’s star plans, which have been scaled back to meet his approval.

If candidates such as the loose cannon Robert Kennedy Jr. are already undercutting Biden in voting intentions — in May he received 20% support, compared to 37% for the president, whose re-election is rejected by 70% of Americans — Manchin’s presence makes the Democrats tremble even more because of his ability to distract public attention. On top of this new third party option, which is aiming to raise $70 million to create a presidential ticket representing both traditional parties, there are also other White House hopefuls such as Green Party activist and intellectual Cornel West that are unnerving Biden’s campaign team.

No Labels supports the launch of a new “common sense” platform on immigration, healthcare, gun control, the economy, and other issues that it believes are being ignored by what it sees as two ideological and increasingly extremist parties in comparison with each other, and that reflect the polarization sown by Donald Trump. Manchin, who has not yet said whether he will run for re-election to the Senate next year, lands on familiar political ground: ambivalent, to the right of his party, and close to more moderate Republicans. On good terms with the oil industry and also chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, last summer he forced Biden to backtrack on a large package of measures, including many against climate change, and a tax hike on the wealthy. Their pressure forced a cut in the maximums program, but the party leadership accepted it without complaint because its majority in the Senate is wafer-thin: 51 seats against 49 Republicans. And because the senator is the Democratic bulwark in West Virginia, a state that voted massively for Trump in 2016 and 2020.

In his speech, Manchin argued that the parties have “retreated” to the “extreme” ends of the political spectrum. “We’re here to make sure that the American people have a choice, and the choice is whether you can get the political parties off their respective sides, they’ve gone too far to the right and too far to the left,” he said. But asked about his presidential ambitions, he responded that that would be “putting the cart before the horse.” “I’m not here running for president,” he said. “I’m here basically trying to save the nation. I am more worried now than I have ever been in my life. I have three children and 10 grandchildren.”

In addition to Manchin’s prominence, the very existence of No Labels unsettles Democrats, because its leap into the political arena can only further Donald Trump’s candidacy. Although the Democratic primaries seem in principle more predictable than the crowded Republican caucus, many in the White House believe that, if such a bicolor candidacy comes to fruition, the third way could definitively torpedo Biden’s chances in 2024. But the truth is that it is dissatisfaction with both parties’ candidates — Trump is the subject of a similar rejection to Biden’s — that fuels speculation about the third party.

Biden’s age, 80 years old, his loud absent-mindedness — he has twice confused the war in Ukraine with the war in Iraq — and a faltering mandate due to inflation, Republican stumbling blocks, and Supreme Court setbacks — the latest one, when his plan for partial student debt cancellation was overturned — place the president in an uncomfortable position. Biden is a well-known advocate of the role of unions. However, the workers’ union at logistics giant UPS, the nation’s leading delivery service, has asked the White House for Biden to refrain from intervening in labor negotiations with the company following the recent breakdown in dialogue. In the wings is a possible massive, disruptive strike of 340,000 workers starting July 31, but also Biden’s diminished role as the country’s chief trade unionist.

Non-profit association

If Manchin does not run for re-election in 2024, and gives away his seat to the Republicans, or, even worse, he accepts the hypothetical offer of No Labels to integrate the electoral ticket — something he does not contemplate in principle but does not rule out either — are two nightmare scenarios for the blue establishment. “It is clear that most Americans are very frustrated by the growing division in our political parties and the toxic political rhetoric of our elected leaders,” Manchin said last week in the release calling the No Labels event in New Hampshire.

The intentions, as well as the actual supporters, of No Labels raise all sorts of theories; the group is registered as a non-profit association that does not disclose the identity of its donors. This Sunday, Joe Lieberman, co-chair of No Labels, stated that they will not field a candidate in 2024 if polls show that it would help elect the Democratic or Republican presidential nominee. “We’re not in this to be spoilers,” he said in an interview on ABC News. The group has dismissed criticism of its intentions to participate in the political process as undemocratic.

Since the start of Biden’s presidency in January 2021, Manchin has put up a fight against everything, including child support to lift the most disadvantaged families out of poverty, not to mention Biden’s ambitious green policy. He has been openly in favor of only one measure: relaxing the rules for granting permits to exploit fossil fuels (vital to West Virginia’s economy). Looking ahead to 2024, when there is theoretically nothing he can get in return for his vote, the wayward Manchin may give Joe Biden a new, perhaps permanent, headache.

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