Photo: Intelligencer. Photo: Getty Images
the national interest

Did Joe Manchin Kill Joe Biden’s Domestic Agenda?

Maybe — but the conservative Democrat might just be negotiating again.

Photo: Intelligencer. Photo: Getty Images

When historians record the Biden presidency, the aspect they will struggle to capture is just how much of it was spent attempting to divine the objectives and motivation of Joe Manchin. The West Virginia senator once again threw Washington into chaos by appearing on Fox News Sunday to deliver what may or may not be a death blow to the centerpiece of Biden’s domestic agenda.

“I can’t move forward. I cannot vote to continue with this piece of legislation, I just can’t,” Manchin said during the interview. “I tried everything humanly possible. I can’t get there. … This is a no.”

That sounds like the firmest possible no. But is it? In the next breath, Manchin lays out what sound more like specific negotiating conditions that the White House has to meet.

“They’re just trying to make the adjustment for the time to fit the money or the money to fit the time. Not changing our approach, not targeting things we should be doing,” he added.

Manchin is referring here to a policy-design choice where his preferences are not only clear but correct from a liberal point of view. Biden began the process with a sweeping domestic-reform agenda, financed by more than $3.5 trillion in new taxes and other funding. Centrist Democrats, heavily influenced by business lobbyists, systematically picked those funding sources apart.

The lobbying by the rich to keep the money Biden wanted to tax away was the key strategic defeat. It left Democrats with around $1.75 trillion to spend over a decade.

But instead of choosing which programs to keep, they mainly gamed the budget score instead. The House plan phases in and phases out several of the programs to shrink their headline cost. Manchin is attacking this as a gimmick that minimizes the realistic cost. In reality, those phased-out programs are almost certain to expire, because they require Democrats to have full control of Congress and be willing to raise more tax revenue to pay for it (which would mean getting bigger majorities with Democrats more resistant to the pleas of their affluent constituents).

Some Democrats have persuaded themselves that establishing a bunch of expiring programs is a clever plan, because once people experience benefits, Congress will be afraid to let the benefits end. But this belief elides the crucial difference between Republicans actively voting to kill a social program, which is very hard for them to do, and passively allowing a program to expire by doing nothing, which is very easy for them to do.

Any program Democrats establish that lacks permanence is almost certain to expire. Every dollar they devote from their precious, limited store of funding to an expiring program is one less dollar they have to spend on a permanent program. Refusing to recognize this strategic fact is an act of catastrophic stupidity.

So, it is possible to imagine that Manchin is simply playing hardball in order to achieve this better outcome. He is complaining about the national debt, and he is opposing this bill, but that wouldn’t rule out him supporting a different bill that did not increase the national debt and met his demand to remove the phased-out programs.

Indeed, given the baffling lack of any apparent progress in Congress toward trimming down the bill by identifying some programs to eliminate, Manchin may well be helping the process by dropping a bomb. Democrats need to understand that their old policy design is dead so that they can restart the negotiations on Manchin’s terms.

However, it’s not certain that this is what Manchin is doing. In addition to laying out his familiar demands for permanence in stronger terms, he also bitterly attacked the climate provisions in the bill on Sunday. This section of Manchin’s prepared statement is especially bearish:

If enacted, the bill will also risk the reliability of our electric grid and increase our dependence on foreign supply chains. The energy transition my colleagues seek is already well underway in the United States of America. In the last two years. As Chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and with bipartisan support, we have invested billions of dollars into clean energy technologies so we can continue to lead the world in reducing emissions through innovation. But to do so at a rate that is faster than technology or the markets allow will have catastrophic consequences for the American people like we have seen in both Texas and California in the last two years.

What makes this part so discouraging is that Manchin had already negotiated the climate portion of the bill. Democrats rewrote the climate provisions to meet his objections. But now Manchin is attacking the new provisions, which he agreed on, in the same terms he employed to attack the old ones. Indeed, his objection seems to be aimed not at the specifics of this climate plan but at the entire concept of speeding up the green-energy transition.

If Manchin really decided to back down from his own climate deal, then the bill may be completely, not just mostly, dead. If, on the other hand, he is merely trying to signal that he never liked this part of the bill and sees it as a concession, then he might just be engaged in hardball negotiations.

There is no one true, secret interpretation of Manchin’s comments. Even the most inside insiders are scratching their heads:

The White House issued a statement indicating Manchin had given the White House a counteroffer, and seems to be backing away from it:

If Manchin is renouncing an offer he made privately, and the White House is resorting to calling out his bad faith in public, that would be a tremendously negative sign of the bill’s prospects. On the other hand, it does seem to indicate that Manchin, as ever, remains a moving target.

Why the White House decided to personalize an attack on a Senator whose support it needs is difficult to fathom.

The bill might be dead. But Democrats can’t give up on the last chance to make the economy a little fairer and to take action to mitigate climate disaster. They need to recognize the old Build Back Better is dead and come back with a narrower bill with a smaller number of permanent programs.

The trick to dealing with Manchin is that you never really know what he wants. But if they want success, they have to move forward as if the good version of Manchin is real. The only chance Biden’s agenda has to survive is to work from the premise that Manchin can be bargained with.

This post has been updated with more analysis of the White House statement responding to Manchin.

Did Joe Manchin Just Kill Joe Biden’s Domestic Agenda?