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Ryan Clancy on the Campbell Conversations

Ryan Clancy
Ryan Clancy

On this week's episode of the Campbell Conversations, Grant Reeher speaks to Ryan Clancy, the chief strategist for the Washington D.C. based organization called, "No Labels", which sponsors the Problem Solvers Caucus along with other interesting and important political work.

Program transcript:

Grant Reeher:  Welcome to the Campbell Conversations, I'm Grant Reeher. In most of our programs with political figures, somewhere in the conversation the topic of political polarization comes up. And indeed, one of the central purposes of this show is to create dialogs that cross party aisles. My guest this week has dedicated his life to that goal. Ryan Clancy is the chief strategist for a DC based organization called No Labels, which also sponsors the Problem Solvers Caucus. The organization has been doing interesting and important political work in recent years and also has a possible plan for the 2024 elections that is of particular interest. For full disclosure, I should note that in the past I have collaborate with some of the people at No Labels in putting together a policy brief at the Campbell Public Affairs Institute. Ryan, welcome to the program.

Ryan Clancy: Thank you for having me, Grant.

GR: Well, it's great to have you. So, let me just start by asking you to give us a brief overview, both of No Labels and the Problem Solvers Caucus. Tell me just very briefly, what are their origins and their purpose?

RC: Sure. So, No Labels has been around since about 2009 trying to get at this problem of division and polarization we have in the country. And as you noted, the big thing we're known for is when we looked at Congress a decade ago and we sort of said, well, how does power get exercised in this place? And what we saw is very dedicated blocks on the right, the Freedom Caucus types and on the left, you got a progressive caucus. And we realize that they moved together and it gave them a lot more power. They sort of moved as a unified group. Nobody had really ever organized the folks in between that. And so we helped create this thing called the Problem Solvers Caucus, which has about 60 members evenly divided between the parties. And then we link them up with an ally group in the Senate. And so I think the key thing I'd like everybody to remember and hopefully feel good about is as dysfunctional as Washington has been for a long time, if you look at the last Congress and the major pieces of bipartisan legislation that passed like the infrastructure bill, it's the biggest public works bill since Eisenhower, the CHIPS Act, that big semiconductor bill, the gun safety bill after that horrific Parkland massacre. And right before the last Congress, two of our biggest allies, Joe Manchin and Susan Collins, led the rewrite of the electoral count act of 1887. And of course that act and the uncertainty around it is what enabled a lot of the horrific stuff that happened on and in the run up to January 6th.

GR: Mm hmm. And for No Labels, just to make it clear to our listeners, that's an organization that is more oriented around finding and supporting candidates that are more in the middle, correct? And then the Problem Solvers Caucus is more once you're in Congress, do I have that right?

RC: So the easiest way to think about it is, No Labels is a separate, what's called a 501(c)(4) organization. So we're like, you know, AARP or the League of Women Voters. We're an advocacy group.

GR: Okay.

RC: The Problem Solvers Caucus is a separate entity that we're not the boss of them. They're a registered caucus in the House like the Progressive Caucus or Freedom Caucus. But we facilitate a lot of meetings with them, share policy ideas with them. And then the other big thing we do is we really try to organize citizens all across the country to support these kinds of members because the thing we want them to do which is bipartisan problem solving, is not rewarded and is in fact often punished in elections, particularly party primaries, which, as you know Grant, are, you know, in eight out of ten seats in the house, they’re the only elections that really matter.

GR: And you mentioned when you were talking about the most recent Congresses and pulling out some of the things that were able to pass and the Problem Solvers Caucus being integral to that, you mentioned the Infrastructure bill. The member of Congress here in the Syracuse area who stepped down recently, John Katko, was a member of the Problem Solvers Caucus. He talked a lot about how important that caucus was for the Infrastructure bill, even though the credit publicly might have gone to some other folks. So would you regard that as is in a sense, the Problem Solvers Caucus, you know, greatest hit if you were pulling out sort of the big singles, so to speak, using a music metaphor?

RC: Definitely. And I'll tell you why. Because the problem solvers and again, there's this allied group in the Senate that we've now connected with them working very closely. So Bill Cassidy and Susan Collins on the Republican side, Joe Manchin and Kirsten Cinema on the Democratic side and some others. But, you know, in the spring of that year, we held a retreat at our co-chair, governor, former Maryland Governor Larry Hogan at his governor's mansion for these House and Senate members. And they really hashed out what that bill was eventually going to become and kind of worked it over the summer. And then in the end, the Democrats in our coalition are the ones that really showed some courage standing up to their own party where they got the agreement to break off that Infrastructure bill from that bigger Build Back Better bill, which was not bipartisan. So they got the standalone vote for the Infrastructure bill and then when the vote actually came, it was 13 Republicans who crossed over to vote for it. If they wouldn't have done that, it wouldn't have passed because there were six members of that left wing group people know as the, “squad” who actually voted against the Infrastructure bill, even though they like the substance of it. It was like a protest vote for them. They said we're really angry, we're not getting all these other things we want, so we're going to knock down this bill. So absolutely that that's the sort of textbook case for how our coalition really led the way on something important for the country.

GR: And you've obviously spoken to these members many times. I wonder, have the members of the Problem Solvers Caucus, do they speak of getting pressure from their party to go more to the extreme, pressure from their colleagues, pressure from their party's leadership?

RC: Oh, all the time and it's so blatant. I mean, to be honest, some of the leaders in Congress, I mean, they operate like mob bosses. I mean, we heard stories during the Infrastructure bill. You know, on the Republican side, for example, their leadership called them in on the, you know, privately, they said you can't vote for this bill. It's going to be a win for the president. If you recall, at the time, former President Trump was attacking anybody who would vote for this Infrastructure bill, calling them RINOS, which, of course, means Republican in name only. And the thing is, is Republican and Democratic leaders on both sides, they have a lot of tools, as you know, Grant, to keep members in line. So what they do is they basically go to them and say, look, here's how we want you to vote on a bill. If you don't do what we say, there's going to be consequences, including you're not going to get the committee assignments you want. You're not going to get the campaign funding you need because a lot of the major campaign funding is effectively controlled by the party nominees. And again, as we talked about at the top, for most members, the election that matters most to them is their primary, which is pretty low turnout. And so they often live much more in fear from their base that they are concerned about the general election. So it takes a lot of pressure on these members and those who are able to resist it, we think it's courageous and we do everything we can to sort of support them when they take that kind of step.

GR: You're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reeher and I'm speaking with the chief strategist for No Labels, Ryan Clancy. So I wanted to ask a question about you in all of this. Tell me about your own political journey more to the center and in search of compromise, is that where you started out politically or well, how did you end up here?

RC: I came up on the Democratic side of politics I worked for the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee in 2006, and then I was in the Obama administration early as a speechwriter actually for them V.P. Biden, among others. But I linked up with No Labels around 2011. And one of the things that has just always resonated with me is when you look at the history of the country and the major achievements that have stood the test of time, they are bipartisan. You know, one of the leaders who recently joined us as a co-chair is a guy named Dr. Ben Chavis, who is really an icon of the civil rights movement. He was actually Martin Luther King's youngest hire in the 60’s at the Southern Leadership Conference. And he talks about how in the 60’s the three signature pieces of legislation for civil rights were the Voting Rights Act, the Civil Rights Act and the Fair Housing Act. And Dr. Chavis talks all the time about how these were bipartisan. And of course, Lyndon Johnson gets a lot of credit for passing those, as he should. But Dr. Chavis says there was a Republican senator named Everett Dirksen who really played the lead role in actually making that possible. And so when change happens that way, it tends to stand the test of time. When change happens the way it is recently, where one or both parties just sort of jammed through everything they want on a partisan vote, then the second they get out of power, the other party just tries to undo it. And that's no way to run a country.

GR: Yeah. I think of, for example, Obamacare, which has a lot of successes that one could point to. Nonetheless, you know, has just been a point of attack over and over and over again and it kind of makes your point that way. So let's shift to this new initiative that your organization has been putting together regarding the upcoming presidential election cycle. Tell us a bit about this.

RC: Sure. So as we've been talking about here, we've for the last decade, we've been pretty exclusively focused on Congress. But about a year ago, we did start looking over the horizon at the 2024 presidential election and just didn't like what we saw. And it was obvious the American public didn't like what they saw either. We just sort of saw, once again, parties marching towards nominating candidates the vast majority of this country doesn't want to vote for. And under those conditions, we actually think there is a path to victory for a unity ticket. So a Democrat, a Republican running on a No Labels ballot line. So what we've been doing for the last year is getting ballot access in states across the country. So we already are on the ballot in about four states. We'll do another six by mid-spring about 30 by the end of the year. The key thing though that, Grant, I hope all your listeners will kind of take in if they just take in one thing, is that this is an insurance policy. What we're doing is building the infrastructure for a run like this if the public wants it and if there's a path to victory, if a year from now the public doesn't want this, there's nobody emerging that really seems like they could potentially win, we have no interest in fueling a spoiler effort. We will fold up shop on this effort and we will just stand down and double down on the work we've been doing in Congress.

GR: So a lot of things come out of this. It's intriguing. Let me just start with one follow up question. My understanding is you also are looking at doing something down ballot at the congressional level with this or no?

RC: No. So and that's what makes us different. Well, we're not trying to be a third party so we will not be running state and local candidates. The way ballot access works is you get federal ballot access. So there is an option to offer up our ballot line to House or Senate candidates if there's an opening there. But that's not what we're planning for right now. The reason we're doing this is to, again, create this launching pad. And to be clear, you know, in the end, it's not No Labels that would ever be running a candidate what it would be is we will have created the platform. And if again, if the conditions are right, if the public doesn't like their choices, and there looks like a path to victory for a unity ticket, we will then start going through a process to nominate a ticket and offer it up on that ballot line.

GR: You're listening to The Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reeher and I'm talking with Ryan Clancy. He's the chief strategist for the DC based political organization called No Labels. So, so many questions are in my mind about this. Let me just start by parsing out, you know, I'm thinking about, you're building this infrastructure for an alternative candidate and you've got this kind of triggering mechanism that you've described. You know, if the public wants it, if there's dissatisfaction with the two candidates. Can you give me an idea about what kinds of candidates you have in mind that would be likely to trigger this effort? I mean, I assume that Donald Trump being the Republican nominee, that's a go. If we're going to go, go / no, go, that would probably be a go for your organization, right?

RC: Well, in everything we do here, Grant, the North Star is going to be what the public wants. So this is, the go / no go decision is not a subjective judgment that No Labels is going to make of, hey, this candidate is, you know, really bad or the really extreme. We have been polling and modeling extensively. And in fact, in December of 2022, we pulled over 26,000 registered voters with a representative sample in every state. As far as we're aware, nobody yet in the 24th cycle has done a poll either that big or that granular. And there's a couple of things that came out of it. Number one, 69% of Americans, registered voters, do not want Joe Biden to run for president again in 2024. 62% do not want Donald Trump to win, or excuse me, to run. And it sort of begs the question, you know, in America the one thing that is certain is that the American public likes choices. And if they don't like the choices of anything, cereals, cars, you name it, somebody's going to come along and offer another choice. And so the question is, why is it that we're sitting here a year out in the public is sending a very clear message. You know, what we found in our poll is consistent, I'm sure, in other polling you've seen. Why is it that we seem like we could be marching towards that? And unfortunately, in our view, this is why: because both parties have gotten to a point where they make a very cynical calculation and it's basically this, you may not like our candidate, but you really hate the other guy a lot more. And so in the end, you're going to come home to us. And in our poll, here's the evidence that the public is tired of that. We asked people specifically if it were Trump and Biden in ‘24 and you had the choice of voting for a moderate independent ticket, would you be open to voting for that ticket? 59% said yes. And just for a little context there, our pollster who’s, you know, he's been doing this for 30 years. He said he has never seen a poll like this. He said, typically, if you get that open to kind of question, you know, maybe 30% will say that. And so to us, that speaks to the depth of frustration that exists. And one final point, Grant, is not only if we polled nationally in and all the states, but we've actually modeled how this would unfold in the Electoral College. And we actually think there is a viable path to victory for a ticket like this to win outright in the Electoral College in 24 states or more.

GR: Interesting. So how did, you mentioned somehow the nominees kind of emerging, you're looking for someone to come up as the alternative. That's but given the system that we've got, you know, it makes it very difficult for that to happen. And those folks, again, you know, they need to see a path forward for them to emerge. You're providing the infrastructure, but how are you going to how are you going to figure out who your presidential nominee is? You've got to have some sort of choice mechanism in place.

RC: Yes. So in the event that No Labels decided to go forward, and again, the conditions need to be very specific, basically, the two parties need to have nominees that in the view of the public are bad enough, and there is an alternative that is good enough that they can actually win. If all our polling and research suggests those conditions are met, then we are in the process of putting together a nominating committee, which would have kind of distinguished Americans that in every way look and think like the country. So, diverse in terms of political views, ethnicity and gender. They would start a confidential process to be vetting candidates and they would ultimately pick or recommend a ticket. And that ticket would then be put to No Labels delegates at a convention that we are hosting in Dallas in the first quarter of 2024. So we'll be hosting a convention in Dallas that will be in a lot of ways like the major party convention. So just how, you know, the parties have their local delegates in each state, No Labels is in the process of building out the exact same thing.

GR: And jumping ahead to a question I was going to ask you at the very end, but this is a good time to ask it now. So, another piece of information about No Labels as an organization is that you have citizens all across the country that are members of it, and that's what you're going to draw on for participation in this convention, it sounds like.

RC: Yes, certainly. I'll make the plug here, No Labels dot org…

GR: Yeah, go ahead (laughter)

RC: …is interested in learning more about this. But look, you know, the way we describe, Grant, our movement is that it's a movement for common sense Americans. And what we don't say is that we're a centrist movement or a moderate movement, and there's a reason for that. It's because the people in our movement, they might be conservative, they might be liberal, but they're pragmatic. And they recognize that in their lives, in their work, in their family relationships, they never get everything they want. And yet, for some reason in the political realm that is the standard that a lot of our leaders have. Which is basically, I will either get 100% of what I want or I will take my ball and go home. And that's why we're in the mess that we're in.

GR: If you've just joined us, you're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. And my guest is Ryan Clancy of No Labels. So one last question on the logistics of this. You mentioned that, I think you said that you were not going to be in the business of providing the financing for these candidates. As you well know, it costs a boatload of money to run for president. I mean, you got to have a billion at least. And if you're thinking about running for Congress, you're talking about several million and the Senate is more than that. So what's the financing vision at least for a run like this?

RC: So remember, what we're describing here is No Labels building a launching pad. And so it really is three key pieces. So there's the ballot access effort, and that's just gathering signatures, that's like shoe leather work. People in, you know, parking lots and outside football stadiums, just getting people to sign petitions. Number two, we're working to build out a national data vault of citizens who share this kind of politics. So that's going to be a big organizing tool. The other thing is, later this year, we're going to release what we're calling our common sense policy agenda to give people a little more meat about what this movement stands for, what a ticket like this in ‘24 could actually run on. So all those assets together, that's going to cost about $70 million through the spring of 2024. And we've already raised or had pledged about two thirds of that. Now to your question, all right so you've built a launching pad, all right now who builds the rocket to the White House? And just as I'm sure, as is the case down in Cape Canaveral, the rocket is a lot more expensive than the launching pad. And that would be on the ticket itself to build. So they would have to build the campaign infrastructure. And, you know, in the end, they're just using the platform that that No Labels built. But I would say, Grant, in any scenario where there is actually a big enough of an appetite and an opening for a ticket like this, I really don't think money would be much of a problem for that candidate. If you think about how much candidates today who capture the public's imagination, how much they can raise in increments of $10, $20, $50. I think a candidate can, a ticket like this would attract a lot of interest in a lot of fundraising.

GR: Sort of like I know you resisted the label moderate before, but I'll use that sort of like a moderate version of a Bernie Sanders type of thing, a pragmatic version of Bernie Sanders.

RC: Yeah, I think what's happening is, you know, I often use when you try to think about why is our country so divided? And I think what's important for everybody to understand is that most people really are a part of like this common sense majority. The extremes on both sides, and there's been all kinds of polling and stuff about this, they're pretty small numerically. But here's the problem and here's why they have so much influence, and I use a boxing analogy here. Numerically, the extremes are lightweights, but they fight like heavyweights because they always show up. They vote, they give money, they go to rallies, they write and email their member of Congress. Everybody else in between are the people who are just trying to go to school or get their kids to school or, you know, pay their rent or their mortgage and just live their lives. And oftentimes they don't have the time or inclination to be really involved in the political process. What we're seeing that's changing, though, is they are waking up. This sort of sleeping giant is starting to wake up and recognizing wait a minute, if we don't get involved and engaged, we are, in effect, abandoning the playing field to the loudest and angriest voices in our system who have driven us into the ditch that we're in today.

GR: Yeah, friendly amendment to your metaphor, I would say maybe the way to think about it is, those extremes, they punch above their weight.

RC: Yes, they do.

GR: So we've only got about a minute and a half or so left but I want to try to squeeze in two questions if I can. One is, and you know this very well, even though there have in the past been large public appetites for something like this, structurally it's very hard in this country for third parties or alternative candidates to get traction. I mean, it's just a lot of headwinds that they encounter logistically. Is there a reason other than what you've already described, that makes you think it can be viable this time?

RC: Well, I think there's two reasons. One, is usually independent candidacies are kind of protest candidacies. I mean, that's what like a lot of the libertarian runs are on the right, certainly like a Jill Stein or a Nader on the left. Very few sort of make an appeal to the broad center of the electorate, so that's number one. And number two, as you noted, Grant, there's just a lot of structural hurdles. Both parties have gotten very good, because, remember, everything with elections is kind of done at the state level, of setting up really difficult barriers to entry. And that's why we started a year ago with this problem.

GR: That's the piece you're taking care of, yeah.

RC: Yeah. I think our biggest challenge and we know it is, is in the end, there's a lot of people who are intrigued by a ticket like this, but they don't want to throw away their vote. And what needs to happen is people need to see this is real. And I think if they see this could actually win, then you will really see the dam kind of break and people will start to get behind something like this.

GR: Well, we'll have to leave it there. It's very intriguing and I'm sure that a lot of listeners are equally intrigued. Just remind us again, if someone's listening to this and they say, hey, this is a great idea, I want to get involved, where do they go again?

RC: nolabels.org, just sign up on our web site. Give us your email and you'll stay up to the minute updates on what we're up to.

GR: All right, great. That was Ryan Clancy. Ryan, I want to thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me this is really interesting.

RC: Thanks, Grant. Really appreciate it.

GR: You've been listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media, conversations in the public interest.

Grant Reeher is Director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute and a professor of political science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. He is also creator, host and program director of “The Campbell Conversations” on WRVO, a weekly regional public affairs program featuring extended in-depth interviews with regional and national writers, politicians, activists, public officials, and business professionals.