joe manchin

The Democratic Agenda Dies of Delusions

His majesty. Photo: Samuel Corum/Getty Images

Joe Biden’s agenda is on life support.

For weeks, the White House and West Virginia senator Joe Manchin had been conducting cordial negotiations over the Build Back Better Act, the president’s climate and social spending program. But on Sunday, those negotiations abruptly ended. In an interview with Fox News, Manchin declared that he “tried everything humanly possible” to reach a compromise with Biden, but “I can’t get there.”

The administration issued a scorched-earth response. In a written statement, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki accused Manchin of repeatedly reversing himself and being untrue “to his word.” It asked him to “explain to those families paying $1,000 a month for insulin why they need to keep paying that, instead of $35 for that vital medicine.”

Thus, the Dems are in disarray. The story of how they got here goes like this: Last week, Manchin presented Biden with a framework for a $1.8 trillion climate and social spending package that he was prepared to support. According to the Washington Post, that legislation would have included permanent funding for universal prekindergarten, between $500 and $600 billion in climate spending (of unspecified composition), and an expansion of the Affordable Care Act. But the proposal included no funding for the enhanced child tax credit, which troubled the White House.

Manchin and Biden agreed to disagree about the legislation until after the holidays. Then on Thursday, White House staff warned Manchin that they were about to release a statement announcing the delay, which would mention the West Virginia senator by name. Manchin asked the administration not to single him out, since his houseboat had been recently protested. The White House released the statement anyway. So Manchin decided enough was enough.

Or at least, he wanted the White House to believe as much. It looks like Manchin may have merely been seeking to demonstrate willingness to kill Biden’s agenda. The president and Manchin reportedly spoke Monday night, ending their conversation “with a sense that negotiations would, in fact, resume around the Build Back Better Act in some form in the new year,” according to Politico.

Still, events since Sunday morning haven’t been encouraging. Manchin (ostensibly) just revealed that he is petty, thin-skinned, and prepared to kill landmark social programs in recompense for perceived slights. Yet the White House and Manchin’s colleagues spent the ensuing 48 hours denouncing him as two-faced liar who wants to fleece low-income diabetics. On Monday afternoon, Congressional Progressive Caucus chair Pramila Jayapal accused Manchin of acting in bad faith, and declared that “no one should think that we are going to be satisfied with an even smaller package that leaves people behind.” Therefore, she called on Biden to give up on negotiations and pursue his core objectives through executive actions.

If the president ultimately takes that route, it will be because Manchin and his Democratic critics each fell prey to their respective delusions. Put simply, Manchin cannot recognize the intellectual bankruptcy of Clinton-era conceptions of fiscal responsibility, while the Democratic leadership has refused to accept that it has no real leverage over him.

Joe Manchin believes a lot of dumb, cruel things.

Joe Manchin is a conservative Democrat. As such, he fears deficits, distrusts the poor, champions fossil fuels, and reveres the Pentagon. Manchin believes that the national debt is a threat to our grandchildren; that giving cash aid to the idle poor only encourages lassitude; that an excessively rapid green transition is a bigger threat than climate change; that the United States cannot afford to cut its military spending; and that there is a limit to how much the nation can increase taxes while keeping its business environment “competitive.”

But, being a Democrat, he also believes that the rich should pay higher taxes, the government should modestly expand social services, and Medicare should impose price controls on prescription drugs.

Much of Manchin’s worldview is deluded, classist, and wholly incompatible with meeting the challenges that the United States faces in the present moment. Manchin’s deficit-phobia is premised on basic misunderstandings about the nature of sovereign debt. His fear that providing cash aid to indigent families would only trap them in dependence is rooted in hateful folk wisdom, not actual social science (studies have demonstrated that giving unconditional cash benefits to low-income parents does not significantly depress their labor-force participation, but does improve their kids’ later-life outcomes, in part by increasing their labor-force participation). His stalwart support for ever-higher military budgets is born of a delusional faith in both the wisdom and plausibility of America’s absolute global dominance. His skepticism of green-energy subsidies proceeds from some admixture of his family’s financial interests and his region’s understandable yet destructive nostalgia for a long-dead coal economy.

Manchin’s contemptible convictions have plagued the Biden agenda. They effectively forced the president to slash the top-line cost of his Build Back Better program in half, and to abandon its central climate reform. In private negotiations, he has fought to cut off enhanced child tax credit payments to unemployed parents, a demand that rightly disgusts many of his colleagues.

And yet, if Democrats fail to pass any version of Build Back Better, fault probably won’t lie with Manchin alone.

Manchin hasn’t really been “moving the goalposts.”

Manchin’s worldview may be deplorable. But it isn’t alien or incomprehensible. A decade ago, the idea that the national debt was a crisis — which strictly limited America’s capacity to expand the welfare state — wasn’t a notion confined to the far-right corner of the Democratic coalition; it was Barack Obama’s official position. In 2016, the prospect of dispensing unconditional cash aid to Americans who didn’t earn a dollar in labor income was too left-wing for Hillary Clinton.

More importantly, Manchin has made his outlook perfectly clear. In July, he laid out his conditions for supporting a social and climate spending package in a written document co-signed by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. Among other things, the senator asked for the bill to authorize no more than $1.5 trillion in spending and that all its welfare provisions be needs-based/means-tested. He also indicated that he wanted the bill to reduce the deficit by raising more revenue through tax increases than it doled out through spending.

In September, he told Politico that he believed “starting new programs that shut off a few years from now is akin to making them permanent” since “Congress will never be able to shut them off.”

In October, Manchin reiterated this view, saying, “The thing that I’m very much committed to is if we’re going to tell the people we’re paying for something and the revenue is a ten-year revenue, then the program should be for ten years.”

That same month, at a meeting of Senate Democrats, Manchin told his party that he would be comfortable with a $0 Build Back Better bill — which is to say, that he was sufficiently ambivalent about increasing social spending and green-energy subsidies to vote down a bill that failed to meet his specifications.

In the ensuing weeks, Manchin has showed some flexibility, indicating openness to a bill with a $1.8 trillion headline cost, so long as it consisted entirely of permanent programs.

But the Democratic leadership declined to write such a bill. Despite the strong substantive case for pursuing two or three fully funded, permanent social programs — instead of many underfunded, temporary ones — Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer opted for the latter. They did this knowing that it made a mockery of their concession to Manchin on the bill’s top-line cost. After all, Democratic leaders promised that a future Congress would inevitably extend the bill’s myriad temporary programs. And if this promise proved true, then the passage of Build Back Better would effectively increase federal spending by $4.5 trillion over the next decade, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

In its denunciation of Manchin Sunday, the White House dismissed the CBO’s estimate, writing that “an unfunded extension of Build Back Better” is “not what the President has proposed, not the bill the Senate would vote on, and not what the President would support.” But this evades the basic issue. Manchin supports raising taxes on the rich by more than the Build Back Better Act presently does (Kyrsten Sinema has been the biggest constraint on Biden’s tax plans). But he does not support $4.5 trillion worth of new taxes. So the White House’s pitch to Manchin is, effectively, “Don’t worry, when we extend these temporary programs years from now, we won’t fund them through deficit spending that you oppose, but merely through large tax hikes that you also oppose.”

Even if this were a reassuring message, Manchin would have little reason to believe it. There aren’t anywhere near 50 Democratic votes in the Senate for $4.5 trillion worth of tax hikes. Indeed, there weren’t even 50 votes to merely raise the corporate tax rate to the level that Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan proposed in 2012. Meanwhile, Republicans are extremely likely to hold at least one chamber of Congress after 2022. To the extent that there is a plausible scenario in which a divided Congress agrees to extend Biden’s social agenda, it involves Democrats agreeing to reciprocate by extending the Trump Tax Cuts, which are also set to expire. In other words: It involves greatly increasing the national debt that Manchin frets so much about.

What’s more, the House’s version of Build Back Better front-loads its spending and back-loads its revenue increases. As a result, it does not fully “pay for” its new social programs until 2027. This not only gives Congress time to cancel its scheduled pay fors (something the House’s “SALT Caucus” is openly counting on), it also increases the deficit for the next five years.

All of which is to say, the Democratic leadership ignored the substance of Manchin’s complaints and treated his concerns about Build Back Better’s cost as purely cosmetic. If all the West Virginia senator feared was a large number in newspaper headlines, then the House bill met his demand. But if he actually believed what he’d been saying for months about the national debt, the tax code, and inflation, then the legislation did nothing to address his concerns. When Manchin denounced the House bill’s budget gimmicks, he wasn’t “moving the goalposts” so much as staying true to his word.

Many progressives believe otherwise. And not without some reason. During the showdown over the bipartisan infrastructure bill, Manchin appeared to soft-pedal his reservations about Biden’s “many temporary programs” framework in a public statement.

And of course, Manchin just went on Fox News and denounced Biden’s agenda as a plot to “dramatically reshape our society in a way that leaves our country even more vulnerable to the threats we face,” apparently because he objected to the wording of a White House statement. This is not generally how a good-faith negotiating partner behaves.

This said, Manchin’s demands have been more consistent — and the leadership’s concessions more limited — than many progressives appreciate. And this seems partly attributable social-media dynamics. On Twitter, half-true talking points or willful misreadings can quickly attain the status of canonical facts, especially if they reinforce an ideologically flattering narrative. For example: On Monday, Manchin told a West Virginia radio station that he knew from early on that negotiations were going to fail because the White House believed “surely to God we can move one person, surely we can badger and beat one person up, surely we can get enough protesters to make that person uncomfortable enough … Well, guess what? I’m from West Virginia.”

In summarizing these comments, HuffPost’s Tara Golshan tweeted that Manchin had said he “knew from the beginning he wouldn’t support BBB.” Progressive Twitter users interpreted this to mean that Manchin had just confessed his own bad faith: He knew from the start that he would oppose Build Back Better, no matter what concessions the White House offered. He was just playing them this whole time — and now he was admitting it!

Of course, what Manchin actually said was close to the opposite of this. His point in the interview wasn’t that negotiations were doomed because he never actually cared about his own substantive demands, but rather, that they were doomed because he did care about those demands, and the White House was unwilling to meet them.

Nevertheless, Manchin’s supposed confession of bad faith quickly became a rationale for progressives to preemptively disavow making any further substantive concessions to the senator, since doing so would be pointless, anyway.

You come at the Manchin, you best not miss.

Manchin’s gripes about Build Back Better are mostly worthless. In my view, he is right that the bill should do a few permanent programs instead of many temporary ones. But he arrives at that position for the wrong reason (Democrats should prioritize permanency because Congress won’t extend the temporary programs, not because it will). The rest of his complaints range from callous to clueless. If the Democratic leadership had the power to make Manchin blink on all of them, it would be justified in doing so.

But it really doesn’t seem like they do.

Manchin represents a state that backed Donald Trump over Joe Biden by 40 points. As of November, the senator’s approval rating among West Virginia voters was 60 percent, while Biden’s was 32 percent. On many issues, Manchin is more right-wing than political necessity demands; West Virginia voters aren’t about to riot in opposition to federal funding for at-home elder care or a refundable child tax credit. But he is also quite plainly more progressive than he needs to be to win elections in his state, as every other congressional representative from West Virginia demonstrates.

As a political matter, Manchin may have more to gain from killing Build Back Better than he does from passing it. To win statewide races as a Democrat in one of America’s reddest states, Manchin must cultivate a nonpartisan image. Defying his party’s president in a high-salience way greatly aids that project. Opposing broadly beneficial social benefits might be politically toxic in theory. But liberals must grapple with the fact that it isn’t always in practice. Manchin has been loudly opposing aid to his state’s disproportionately low-income population for months, and his constituents have responded by lauding his independence.

As a substantive matter, Manchin has made it clear that he cares more about preventing deficit increases than expanding social services, and would therefore be comfortable with Build Back Better dying.

Meanwhile, as Mitch McConnell revealed this week, Manchin has a standing invitation to join the Republican Party whenever he pleases.

So what leverage is the party supposed to have over him? If he’s comfortable with nothing passing — and every other Democratic faction strongly prefers something to nothing — then Manchin gets to dictate terms.

To their credit, progressives recognized their party’s dearth of leverage over Manchin early on. And they tried to account for it by blockading Biden’s bipartisan infrastructure package in the House — the idea being, don’t give Manchin his desired bipartisan merit badge until he votes for Build Back Better. Now, many on the left are lamenting the Congressional Progressive Caucus’s failure to stick to that plan, which is a reasonable assessment of the current predicament.

Yet it’s far from clear that prolonged hostage-taking would have worked. Manchin did not bend during the monthslong House blockade. And it seems plausible that, if forced to choose between taking progressives’ dictation on social spending or forfeiting his souped-up highway bill, Manchin would have preferred the latter.

Progressives are deeply attached to a vision of change in which the militancy of social movements and their elected allies forces the hands of wary politicians. And for good reason. Without militant trade unions, there is no New Deal liberalism. Without the Civil Rights Movement’s marches and sit-ins, there’s no democracy in the South. But militancy isn’t much use if it has no power behind it. Activists can cyberbully Joe Manchin or shout at his houseboat. But they’ll pose no threat to his political career until they command some divisions in West Virginia (Manchin beat his left-wing primary challenger in 2018 by 40 points). Sometimes, making change requires afflicting the comfortable. Today, securing $500 billion for the green transition plausibly requires gently massaging a coal baron’s ego.

Ultimately, the Democratic Party needs Joe Manchin infinitely more than he needs it. Every day that Manchin remains a Democrat is a gift. No one else could have won the 2018 West Virginia Senate race with a “D” next to their name. And while Manchin has served as a conservative Democrat, he has not comported himself as a “Democrat in name only.” Manchin voted for Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan and has served as a rubber stamp for the president’s (historically progressive) judicial appointments and virtually all of the president’s Cabinet nominees.

And he’s reportedly still open to supporting a $1.8 trillion investment in the green transition and social welfare state, so long as he gets to dictate its exact specifications.

The Democratic leadership should try to coax better terms from Manchin. Progressives and labor unions in West Virginia should try to make their voices heard. But if the senator stands pat, his co-partisans should take what they can get.

No one can force Manchin to outgrow his baleful delusions about the national debt and jobless poor. But the White House and its progressive allies can outgrow their rose-colored conception of the balance of power in this negotiation. Perhaps Manchin won’t take yes for an answer, even if Biden takes his fiscal neuroses seriously. But there is only one way to find out.

The Democratic Agenda Dies of Delusions