David Brooks: Is America ready for a unity ticket in 2024?

What if Republicans nominate someone morally unacceptable and Democrats choose someone ideologically unacceptable?

(Samuel Corum | The New York Times) Flags and a microphone set up before a Republican luncheon in Washington, Oct. 25, 2020. If Republicans and Democrats go to the extremes in selecting their 2024 presidential candidate, there will be a third viable option, a unity ticket, which will appeal to members of both parties to combat this period of polarized dysfunction, the New York Times opinion columnist David Brooks writes.

What happens if the 2024 election is between Donald Trump and somebody like Bernie Sanders? What happens if the Republicans nominate someone who is morally unacceptable to millions of Americans while the Democrats nominate someone who is ideologically unacceptable? Where do the millions of voters in the middle go? Does Trump end up winning as voters refuse to go that far left?

The group No Labels has been working quietly over the past 10 months to give Americans a third viable option. The group calls its work an insurance policy. If one of the parties nominates a candidate acceptable to the center of the electorate, then the presidential operation shuts down. But if both parties go to the extremes, then there will be a unity ticket appealing to both Democrats and Republicans to combat this period of polarized dysfunction.

The No Labels operation is a $70 million effort, of which $46 million has already been raised or pledged. It has four main prongs. The first is to gain ballot access for a prospective third candidate in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The organization is working with lawyers, political strategists and petition firms to amass signatures and establish a No Labels slot on the 2024 ballots. The group already has more than 100,000 signatures in Ohio, for example, and 47,000 signatures in Arizona.

The second effort is to create a database on those Americans who would support a unity ticket. The group’s research suggests there are 64.5 million voters who would support such an effort, including roughly one-third of the people who supported Donald Trump in 2020 and 20% of the Democrats who supported Joe Biden in that year, as well as a slew of independents.

The group has identified 23 states where they believe a unity ticket could win a plurality of the vote, including Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina, Texas, Minnesota and Colorado. If the ticket gained a plurality in those 23 states, that would give its standard-bearer 279 electoral votes and the presidency.

The third effort is to find a policy agenda that appeals to unity voters. The group has come up with a series of both/and positions on major issues: comprehensive immigration reform with stronger borders and a path to citizenship for DACA immigrants; U.S. energy self-sufficiency while transitioning to cleaner sources; no guns for anyone younger than 21 and universal background checks; moderate abortion policies with abortion legal until about 15 weeks.

The fourth effort is to create an infrastructure to nominate and support a potential candidate. There’s already a network of state co-chairs and local volunteers. Many of them are regular Americans, while others are notables like Mike Rawlings, a Democrat and the former mayor of Dallas, civil rights leader Benjamin Chavis and Dennis Blair, the former director of national intelligence.

The group has not figured out how the nominating process would work, although they want to use technology to create a transparent process that would generate public interest. There would be a nominating convention in Texas, shortly after it becomes clear who will be the Democratic and Republican nominees.

The people who are volunteering for this emphasize that they are not leaving their parties. This is not an effort to create a third party, like Andrew Yang’s effort. This is a one-off move to create a third option if the two major parties abandon the middle in 2024.

The big question is: Is this a good idea? To think this through I’ve imagined a 2024 campaign in which the Republicans nominate Trump, Biden retires and the Democrats nominate some progressive and the No Labels group nominates retired Adm. William McRaven and former PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi. (I’m just grabbing these latter two names off the top of my head as the sort of people who might be ideal for the No Labels ticket).

The first danger is that the No Labels candidates would draw more support away from the Democrats and end up reelecting Trump. This strikes me as a real possibility, although No Labels activist Jenny Hopkins from Colorado tells me, “I find it easier to find Republicans who want to pull away from Trump than it is to find Democrats who want to pull away from Biden.”

The second danger is that the No Labels candidates fail to generate any excitement at all. Millions of Americans claim to dislike the two major parties, but come election time they hold their noses and support one in order to defeat the party they hate more.

The last competitive third presidential option was Ross Perot in 1992. He ran as a clear populist outsider, not on the moderate “unity” theme that is at the heart of the No Labels effort. On the other hand, the gap between the two parties is much vaster today than when Perot ran against Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush. There is much more running room up the middle. Plus, the country is much hungrier for change. Only 13% of American voters say the country is on the right track.

This is one of those efforts that everybody looks at with skepticism at first. But if ever the country was ripe for something completely different, it’s now.

(AP Photo | Nam Y. Huh) New York Times columnist David Brooks at the University of Chicago, Jan. 19, 2012.

David Brooks is a columnist for the The New York Times.