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Frank DeFilippo: Hey, Gov. Hogan, ‘No Labels’ Is a Label

Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) with two of his Bobblehead likenesses, in 2016. Photo from Gov. Hogan’s Facebook page.

Sorry, Governor, but “No Labels” is a label. It’s a political variation on the idea of making the pitch by withholding the product. It’s camouflage. It’s duck-and-cover. It’s a cop-out.

The Bobblehead is a better idea. Bouncing around on a pick-up-truck dashboard next to the hip-jiggling girl in a hula skirt is a constant reminder of an existential presence. And at least part of the revenue will serve a worthy purpose — purchasing masks — for anyone nuts enough to buy a plastic Larry-doll likeness at $25 per copy.

Welcome, Gov. Larry Hogan (R) to the National Bobblehead Hall of Fame and Museum, special or spoof. Hogan’s Hall-mates range from the sublime to the ridiculous, from Dr. Anthony Fauci to Hulk Hogan (a favorite of William Donald Schaefer). It’s certifiable kitsch, on a shelf next to Ken and Barbie.

But OMG! Hogan pairing up with Joe Lieberman? When did that Lazarus-like exhumation occur? The last anyone heard of Lieberman was when he tore up his Democratic Party membership card, or the party rescinded it. Whatever. Lieberman couldn’t cut the mustard, so he whiffed.

Way back in the year 2000 — and in politics 20 years is a lifetime — Lieberman, then a senator from Connecticut, was the Democrats’ vice presidential candidate, as understudy to Al Gore. Having trouble remembering him, too? Lieberman, Zelig-like, has paraded as a “reform” candidate, an “independent” since 2006, and he has endorsed Republicans. And now his bio lists him as a lobbyist and attorney.

Hogan has agreed to serve as co-chairman, with Lieberman, of that ghost organization, kind of blanking out his credentials as a Republican — that is, until the General Assembly convenes next week and the old “Change Maryland” Hogan rears his partisan head over such issues as redistricting and the usual range of money matters.

Here’s No Labels’ bloviated description of itself: “No Labels is a ground breaking movement led by Americans who embrace the new politics of problem solving and are collaborating to find common sense, non-partisan solutions to our toughest challenges.”

As for “ground breaking movement,” gee, this sounds a lot like another ground-breaking movement that preceded it, President Bill Clinton’s “Third Way,” which was supposed to be a middle-ground, nonpartisan approach, and which kind of dissipated of its own inertia after Clinton left office.

The difficulty with being nonpartisan, or in the middle of traffic, is being trapped between all of those on both measured sides. An accounting of the recent election returns, and the stacks of current polling, shows that there isn’t much dancing room in the middle. The public is microscopically about equally divided, for and against, whatever happens to be the combustible issue of the moment.

And as for “new politics,” it’s simply the old politics plugged into computers, churning out algorithms, doing the work that slide rules used to perform.

No Labels is kind of the umbrella organization for the nascent “Problem Solvers Caucus” in Congress, a handful of officials meandering around the difficulties of political identity. When Sen. Joe Manchin, Democrat of West Virginia, joins hands with the Problem Solvers, for example, it’s likely so as not to offend the legions of Trump supporters in West Virginia as much as to resolve difficult issues.

As if evidence is needed, consider the recent enactment of the COVID-19 relief measure. The bill was mainly the product of the Problem Solvers Caucus. It has caused more problems than it solved. No one is happy. In fact, some are downright furious. There is the thought, of course, that the perfect compromise leaves everyone unhappy.

As Dante observed in his magisterial “Divine Comedy,” “The hottest places in Hell are reserved for those who, in a period of moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.”

Like Churchill’s pudding, No Labels lacks a theme. No Labels has the same provenance as most K Street or Connecticut Avenue think tanks or advocacy organizations — serious financial backers, bloated staff, marquee names on the letterhead, and a plea for donations.

Hogan was advancing very well on his own — to only he knows where he’s heading — and without the need to add another calling card such as the co-chairmanship of an advocacy group to his resume.

He had built a strong national media presence through his chairmanship of the National Governors Association and his management of the COVID-19 crisis in Maryland.

But most significant of all, Hogan has been the solitary Republican governor willing to publicly challenge and criticize President Trump on a wide range of issues and even to publicly declaim that he refused to vote for Trump, and wrote in Ronald Reagan’s name instead.

Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum, and Hogan sensed one and filled it.

The object lesson here is that Trump has been eager and able to bully most Republican officials into submission to his whim, but he has chosen not to engage Hogan, who has been one of his most frequent and vociferous critics. Moral: Bite back, and Trump will shut up.

But it is here in Maryland that the No Labels label might eventually cause Hogan some major heartburn. The needs of Maryland and the goals of No Labels might collide. And the state itself is undergoing major internal changes that will require bold solutions that could be regarded as more revolutionary than common sense.

One element is that the General Assembly is far more liberal than the people they represent. The overwhelmingly Democratic legislature isn’t about to give Hogan a blank slate to fill in. Hogan no doubt will try again to create a bi-partisan commission to draw new congressional boundaries, as he has repeatedly. This is nothing more than a raw attempt to add Republican seats to Maryland’s congressional delegation. But Republicans control the legislatures in at least 20 other states, and are unlikely to extend the same courtesy to Democrats.

If 2021 has a watchword, it is equity. The emerging political vocabulary is the outgrowth of the “Black Lives Matter” movement, and a season of civil unrest, and the word has many meanings and applications. Essentially, it translates to spread the wealth, or broaden the opportunity gap.

Whether the word finds form in massive funding for education, reparations, funding Black businesses, ponying up the $500 million to historically Black universities and colleges, or tipping state contracts to favor minority enterprises, the word equity will infuse every debate in the coming months in Annapolis (and Baltimore.)

Del. Brooke Lierman, Democrat of Baltimore, for example, launched her campaign for state comptroller with a promise to expand the functions of the office into a kind of social services agency to deal with inequities within Maryland’s minority communities. (The beloved former comptroller, Louis L. Goldstein, must be shuddering in his wintry grave.) The comptroller is one of three members of the Board of Public Works, the state’s highest administrative agency, which awards billions in contracts annually.

Hogan might not find his comfort zone in his final two years of his term-limited run as governor. Nor will No Labels be a perfect fit for Hogan as he must adjust to meet the demands of Democrats, as he frequently does.

Hogan, as often noted, has proved to be a nimble politician, figuring early that the best way to beat Democrats is to act like one. This survival tactic has meant picking partisan fights carefully — either those that he knows he can win, or those that don’t matter but appeal to his Republican base. This season, Hogan angered much of that base by publicly flipping the bird to Trump, but they stuck with the Republican president even if Hogan didn’t.

The bobblehead will probably outlive No Labels.


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Frank DeFilippo: Hey, Gov. Hogan, ‘No Labels’ Is a Label