By Geoff Colvin
December 6, 2016

Could the most divisive election in decades launch an era of cooperation in Washington? It sounds ridiculous and maybe it is, but a number of business leaders think it’s at least possible. I spoke with many of them on background yesterday at a meeting convened by No Labels, the nonpartisan organization founded to support compromise and the political center, fighting extremism in both parties. Here’s how a CEO explained the potential upside of the new Washington environment: “It’s a unique opportunity. Donald Trump’s agenda is not really a partisan agenda.” That is, he supports traditionally Republican and traditionally Democratic initiatives. “There will have to be new coalitions for each issue. Trump’s massive ego requires that he succeed. Hopefully, he’ll be willing to make deals that produce results on major issues.” I asked which issues. “Significant action on infrastructure and tax reform is achievable this year.”

CEOs hate hyper-partisanship because it makes their world much more uncertain. For example, when Democrats controlled Washington they enacted Obamacare without a single Republican vote; now Republicans hold control and are promising to repeal it. After the Democrats lost Senate control in 2014, President Obama governed heavily through executive orders, issuing many classified by the Congressional Budget Office as “having particular significant economic or social impact;” candidate Trump promised to rescind every one of those orders. Sudden, major policy reversals like these, which may themselves be reversed after the next election, throw sand in the gears of business.

That’s why hundreds of CEOs are supporting No Labels. One of its most important objectives is to protect moderate legislators in both parties from getting “primaried” – losing to more extreme candidates in primary elections, which disproportionately attract each party’s most extreme voters. Part of the No Labels strategy is simple: Give those moderate candidates money. The organization tested the concept this year, supporting moderate Democrat Darren Soto in Florida and moderate Republican Roger Marshall in Kansas, both of whom faced more extreme opponents in primaries, and in both cases the moderates won.

So this past weekend No Labels announced it was creating a $50-million super PAC to back centrist candidates in 2018, supported initially by four billionaires, including Trian Fund Management CEO Nelson Peltz, plus six other donors from both parties.

No Labels does more than fund candidates. Its conferences enable members of both parties to meet safely, which is not as easy as you might think. Legislators from both parties report that they sometimes have to meet with opponents secretly; they could pay a political price for merely talking to the other side.

The business leaders at yesterday’s conference are realists who don’t expect miracles. They want to do what they can to turn the partisan tide. Those I spoke with summed up their contribution to political cooperation this way: Give to the super PAC, and, as one of them said, “in every way possible” support “bipartisan amity.”

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