[This post was originally published in The New Republic in December, 2021]
We’re going to remember 2021 as Joe Manchin’s biggest year in national politics. The second-term senator put himself at the center of negotiations on President Biden’s American Rescue Plan even before Biden’s term began. After that bill passed in March with his support (and after an eleventh-hour threat by Manchin to kill the bill), he became the key negotiator for the bipartisan infrastructure package that passed last month. And ever since the spring, he has been the key vote on the Build Back Better Plan, representing Biden’s domestic agenda.
Throughout the year, Manchin had repeatedly said that he would support a reconciliation bill, albeit a smaller one than progressives wanted. A week ago, he provided his own $1.8 trillion framework to the president personally. Then, on Sunday morning, he blew the whole thing up.
As a former vice chair of the West Virginia Democratic Party, I was surprised by Manchin’s move. Build Back Better showers benefits on West Virginia. The bill gives 95 percent of West Virginians a tax cut. It extends policies projected to lift 43 percent of West Virginia’s poor children out of poverty—a stunning accomplishment. Build Back Better includes vital help for coal miners with black lung. The law’s focus on expanding health care and childcare in a state where many children are raised by their grandparents because of the opioid crisis make it an absolute godsend for families. Despite what Manchin says, it is an easy vote to explain back home.
Killing Build Back Better—reports since Sunday indicate that maybe it isn’t quite dead yet—doesn’t just jeopardize billions of dollars that would have flowed into West Virginia. It seriously compromises Manchin’s own political prospects. A loss of Senate control in 2022 by Democrats would make Manchin a powerless ranking member, likely for the rest of his Senate career. A failure to pass Biden’s signature bill makes that loss of control more likely.
Similarly, a party switch is not practical because even the most right-leaning Democrat in the Senate is not nearly far right enough to win a GOP primary in a Trump +39 state. The Republican nomination will go to someone like Representative Alex Mooney, a hard-right conservative who voted against certifying Trump’s loss in the election.
Manchin has to this point had a peerless sense of what is popular and how to stay on the good side of West Virginia voters. But it is one thing to distance yourself from the unpopular Democratic brand in West Virginia and something else to alienate so many in your own party that you can’t turn them out in the general. Manchin’s 2018 reelection effort saw him win quite narrowly over a below-replacement-level Republican politician in Patrick Morrisey. Republicans will not leave his seat behind again in 2024 with Trump on the ballot. A move like this could easily turn his high-wire act into a bad fall.
After Sunday’s announcement, Manchin faced blowback in West Virginia that he did not expect.
After Sunday’s announcement, Manchin faced blowback in West Virginia that he did not expect. Of course progressive Democrats were appalled, and the Charleston Gazette-Mail’s front page hammered home how much the state needs Build Back Better, but Manchin is used to that. But the United Mineworkers of America and other organized labor groups that have been in Manchin’s corner for decades also released public statements urging him, by name, to immediately reconsider. The state party itself tweeted immediately in support of the legislation, and although it did not name Manchin, even that level of pushback from Manchin’s hand-picked party chair is essentially unheard of. The AFL-CIO that has long been in lockstep with Manchin urged him “back to the table.” If, as has been reported, Manchin did not like being specifically “named” in a White House statement, he found himself named quite a bit more after his announcement.
It’s difficult to overstate the consequences of killing a president’s primary agenda item. In 2011, President Obama’s administration was still digging America out of the Great Recession. Unemployment was high, so the centerpiece of his agenda that year was the American Jobs Act. The AJA included middle-class tax cuts, extended unemployment benefits, and infrastructure spending. Obama pushed it hard, including during a prime-time address to a joint session of Congress.
Along with some other blue-dog senators like Mary Landrieu, Mark Pryor, and Kay Hagan, as well as Bob Casey and Jon Tester, Manchin helped kill the AJA, citing deficit concerns. The results were disastrous. Landrieu, Pryor, and Hagan soon lost reelection. The Obama administration never again passed major legislation. The Democrats lost the Senate.
If Manchin stands by his statement from Sunday and single-handedly votes down the Biden agenda, he will become isolated, with no prospects for advancement, amid a lot of colleagues who detest him and deteriorating popularity back home. So you have to ask: What is he doing? What could explain a move with so many downsides and no obvious upside?
Perhaps there was a hint earlier this year from Manchin himself. Manchin spoke to some billionaire donors, corporate executives, and private-equity types in June. He thought he was off the record, but the audio leaked. Manchin told the donors that the GOP filibuster of an independent January 6 commission endangered the filibuster because it might inspire a change to the 60-vote threshold. But it’s what he said next that matters most. Manchin said: “Roy Blunt is a great, just a good friend of mine, a great guy ... Roy is retiring. If some of you all who might be working with Roy in his next life could tell him, that’d be nice, and it’d help our country. That would be very good to get him to change his vote. And we’re going to have another vote on this thing. That’ll give me one more shot at it.” Quite a statement about what Manchin thinks of his Republican colleague.
If Manchin seems to be risking dire consequences for his political career by killing Biden’s agenda, perhaps he does not plan to be around to bear those consequences.
But was Manchin really talking about Blunt, or was this more of a roundabout way of talking about himself? If Manchin doesn’t think it is scandalous to propose something that sounds like a payoff for his retiring friend from people who “will be working with Roy in his next life,” well, then he doesn’t think it is scandalous. The ability of former senators to legally cash in with lucrative consulting and lobbying deals is not in question. At the same time, the principal sources of funding for Build Back Better are taxes on corporations currently paying no taxes, higher tax rates on the very wealthy, and stricter enforcement of the tax laws against rich taxpayers. In other words, Build Back Better is funded by taxing the people on that call.
If Manchin seems to be risking dire consequences for his political career by killing Biden’s agenda, perhaps he does not plan to be around to bear those consequences. Those wealthy donors he spoke to about his friend Roy Blunt’s vote have tens of billions of reasons to oppose Build Back Better. Perhaps no one this side of Donald Trump would be happier to learn that after nine months of negotiations, Manchin simply walked away from the Biden agenda with a flat “no.” It’s the kind of thing that might make those folks happy to be acquainted with Manchin in his “next life.” The up-to-the minute reporting is that Manchin’s vote is not entirely lost, and that the negotiations will continue. If Manchin does intend to continue with his political life, they had better.