Look, everybody who considered the Build Back Better package that has been kicking around Congress for months an important piece of legislation was disappointed, if not angry, when Joe Manchin seemed to pull the plug on it last weekend. It was gratuitously cruel to the 99 percent of Democrats who supported BBB, moreover, that the West Virginia senator delivered the coup d’état on Fox News.
So anger toward Manhin is understandable. And it’s also understandable that Democrats who have been biting their tongues for months after being told that not offending Manchin was essential to the Cause are now inclined to unburden themselves.
But on the other hand, do they really think beating up on Manchin is going to do any good? Check out this quote from squad leader and progressive icon Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on MSNBC’s Morning Joe:
“Of course we have every right to be furious with Joe Manchin, but it’s really up to leadership in the Democratic Party who made the decision to get us to this juncture and how we’re going to move forward and I think right now that the Democratic leadership has a very large number of tools at their disposal … And it’s really about time that we take the kid gloves off.”
This implies the power to biff Manchin firmly once those kid gloves are off. How? Maybe by ratting out the senator to his West Virginia constituents? That’s what Chuck Schumer seems to be suggesting in warning Manchin that a recorded vote would be held on BBB. Bernie Sanders was even more explicit, per the Washington Post:
Schumer’s vow to hold a vote on the bill echoed a call by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, who said that Manchin should have to vote publicly and that he would “have a lot of explaining to do to the people of West Virginia” about his opposition.
And all across Capitol Hill, you hear muttering from Democrats ready to take out their frustrations on Manchin:
“He has had absolutely no pressure,” said one Democratic aide, citing Manchin’s friendly meetings at the White House and at Biden’s home in Delaware this fall that failed to produce results.
“Biden’s got to grab him by the lapels and say, ‘Listen, this ends now,’” the aide added, warning there’s little prospect of passing another piece of major legislation before the 2022 midterms if Build Back Better fails to pass.
This sort of talk makes me want to grab Democrats by the lapels and say, “What gives you the idea that Biden has any leverage over Joe Manchin?”
Yes, you can make claims in a vacuum that this or that BBB policy is or might be or ought to be popular in West Virginia. But there’s no real evidence of that, according to fresh YouGov polling:
A plurality of people in the home states of Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) want Congress to hold off on new spending in its multitrillion-dollar reconciliation package because of concerns over higher taxes, interest rates and inflation, according to a pair of new polls.
The surveys, conducted by YouGov, found that 53 percent of those polled in West Virginia think Democrats should scrap the reconciliation package because the investments may lead to higher middle-class taxes, interest rates and inflation.
And as Nate Silver points out, perceptions of the whole of the highly symbolic BBB are very different from perceptions of its many parts:
And so, Joe Manchin’s constituents will view BBB and their senator’s efforts to stop or pare it down through a partisan and ideological lens. And in case you don’t realize it, West Virginia is a profoundly Republican state these days; Trump got his second-highest percentage margin there in 2020, which was larger than in Idaho, Montana, the Dakotas, or Oklahoma. Manchin is only able to survive politically there by cultivating the impression that he is a more effective enemy of progressive “wokeness” and “socialism” than actual Republicans. And so, as Tim Miller notes, Manchin’s joy at being attacked by other Democrats is probably hard to overestimate:
[T]he question for Democrats is: What now? For the cable news pundits and Twitter class it seems that the answer to “what now” is “roast Joe Manchin until he tastes like chicken.” And for the casual progressive political observer, I understand that impulse. Manchin has the chance to do something and he’s not. It’s frustrating, I get it.
But for those who are ostensibly trying to influence Democratic Party strategy, turning Manchin into the bad guy and railing against him is profoundly stupid.
That is not to say that every lefty criticism of Manchin is self-defeating. House Progressive Caucus chair Pramila Jayapal combines attacks on Manchin with calls on Biden to give up on legislation entirely and begin implementing as much of his agenda as possible by executive order. That is an internally consistent argument, albeit one that won’t satisfy many Democrats. Most recently, Jayapal also reportedly reached out directly to the West Virginia obstructionist asking him to specify exactly what measures he cannot support, but he may read that as simply an effort to shame him for inconsistency.
For those unwilling to give up on Congress, getting Manchin to vote yes on some version of BBB isn’t just a matter of getting something done before the midterms. Given the low odds of Democrats maintaining (a) control of the House in 2022, (b) control of the Senate in 2024 (assuming they don’t lose it earlier), and (c) control of both the White House in 2024 and Congress in 2026 (another midterm where the White House party will almost also lose ground), then it may be 2029 or so before Democrats again enjoy a governing trifecta. That is a long wait. In the meantime, salvaging something of BBB even as Manchin gloats to his constituents that he stopped socialism is probably worth giving up the self-indulgent fun of attacking him. Unless, that is, progressives have made a secret deal to attack him in order to boost his popularity back home.