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The Unnecessary Manchin Mess

The Democrats look weak and divided when they could be touting victories.
December 21, 2021
The Unnecessary Manchin Mess
Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) makes a statement in the Senate TV Studio on Capitol Hill on November 1, 2021 in Washington, DC. Manchin spoke about his approach during Democratic negotiations on the Biden administration's legislative agenda. (Photo by Pete Marovich/Getty Images)

“Joe Manchin Just Killed the Biden Agenda,” lamented a headline in the Week. The funereal tone was echoed in much of the coverage of Sen. Manchin’s blunt declaration on Sunday that he would not support the Build Back Better legislation in its current form. Even Biden’s White House has stooped to insulting Manchin. Congressional progressives, from Bernie Sanders to Pramila Jayapal, issued severe warnings to Senator Red State that this time he had gone too far. No more Mr. Nice Guy. They were going to take their complaints directly to the people of West Virginia! On CNN, Sanders thundered:

Ask the people of West Virginia whether or not they want to lower the cost of prescription drugs. You ask them whether they want to expand Medicare to cover dental, hearing, and eyeglasses. You ask whether they want to continue that $300 payment to help working parents in these very difficult times bring up their kids with dignity. Ask them if they want to deal with climate change. On all of those issues, I suspect people of West Virginia, like every other state in this country, will say, yes, do the right thing for working families.

As The Bulwark’s Tim Miller so expertly explicated last week, this threat will give Sen. Manchin a case of the giggles:

Joe Manchin knows that those who think passing BBB will help him in WV are completely and totally out of touch with his electorate. Even if the individual elements of BBB poll well, signing on to a multi-trillion-dollar left-wing spending bill would be akin to signing his own political suicide note.

The people of West Virginia are not just red, they are scarlet. Trump got a bigger percentage of the vote (68.6) in West Virginia in 2020 than he did in Texas or Louisiana or Oklahoma or Utah or Alabama. Whatever bedtime fairy tales the progressives are telling themselves about the voters of West Virginia, Manchin knows the reality. West Virginians don’t support Build Back Better. They won’t be inclined to reward Manchin for voting for it. In fact, they will punish him.

Many a Democratic lawmaker and pundit has also whined about how unfair and undemocratic it is that one senator representing such a small state should be able to hold up legislation that the whole country wants so desperately.

Please. These people need to grow up. The rules are the rules. Our system was not designed to be a pure democracy. The Electoral College and the Senate give disproportionate power to some voters over others. You can gnash your teeth about it and shake your fists at the heavens, but to what end? Better to figure out how to woo gettable voters in swing states and win—as Biden did in 2020.

Correspondingly, when the Senate is evenly divided, every single senator becomes a potential majority-maker or -saboteur. That’s math. The Democrats were lucky to squeak to 50, for which they can thank two people. The first was Donald Trump. Because of his tantrum about mythical election stealing, some 752,000 Georgia Republicans who voted in November failed to show up for the runoff in January. That was just enough to elect Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock. The second person was Manchin, who has successfully threaded the needle of maintaining his credibility in a conservative state while still voting with his party most of the time.

What the Democrats, starting with President Biden, ought to have done on January 21, 2021 was to sit down with Manchin and ask “What can you support?” If that meant Manchin basically had veto power over some Democrats’ priorities, so be it, because, ladies and gentlemen, he had it anyway, and now he has used it—except almost a year has been wasted.

The Democrats look weak and divided as well as petty and ineffectual. They set goals that were beyond their means, and their seeming failure has become their identity. They’re being branded by what they failed to do rather than by what they did.

This is political malpractice. The Democrats have actually passed quite a lot of legislation in the last 11 months, starting with the American Rescue Plan Act. They extended the Paycheck Protection Program, made Juneteenth a federal holiday, and passed a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill. That legislation contained a number of longtime progressive priorities, such as $39 billion for public transit, $47 billion for climate change mitigation and cyber security, $15 billion for electric vehicle charging stations, and $55 billion for upgrading water infrastructure including replacing all of the lead pipes in the nation (a matter of keen interest for poor people who are the most likely to live in places relying on old, lead pipes, which are known to cause brain damage in children).

Whatever you think about the merits of these bills (and I have my doubts about the American Rescue Plan), these accomplishments are certainly enough to give the Democrats bragging rights. And if new reports are right, Manchin was and possibly remains willing to sign onto a $1.8 trillion spending package that includes universal pre-K fully funded for 10 years, massive allocations for climate change, and expansions of Obamacare.

A competent political party would be taking yes for an answer, passing Manchin’s bill, and turning to more urgent priorities like cheap, abundant COVID tests, reform of the Electoral Count Act, and increasing legal immigration to cope with our severe labor shortage. There is still time, but not much.

Mona Charen

Mona Charen is Policy Editor of The Bulwark, a nationally syndicated columnist, and host of The Bulwark’s Beg to Differ podcast. She can be reached at [email protected].