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Joe Manchin and Reckoning with the Political World As It Is
As 2021 comes to an end, Democrats need to come to terms with the fact that the impediments to progress are much bigger than Joe Manchin
Joe Manchin may know very little about economics and even less about inflation, but he sure knows how to ruin a weekend (and the planet). The West Virginia Senator’s announcement on Fox News took everyone in politics by surprise. He plans to oppose President Biden’s Build Back Better plan. There is a lot of very understandable fury at Manchin and the Democrats who let Manchin string them along. Manchin’s dishonest betrayal of his own promises means that Biden’s first year in office is going to end on a sour note.
Bear with me as I engage in a thought exercise to try to put the current state of the Biden Presidency and its legislative agenda in perspective. This is my attempt to make sense of a very tough situation with dire consequences for the planet and the public.
Pretend for a second that it is December 2020 and someone told you that in the next year:
President Biden passes a near $2 trillion rescue package that includes $1400 stimulus checks, expanded and extended unemployment insurance, gives billions for schools, and creates an enhanced child tax credit with the potential to cut child poverty in half;
Biden follows this package up with a major infrastructure bill that receives the support of 19 Republican senators including Mitch McConnell;
The President will have more confirmed judges than any president at the same point in his presidency;
Under Biden’s leadership, America creates 5.9 million jobs — the most ever in one year — and unemployment drops to 4.2 percent;
Every American, age five and over, can access a free, life-saving COVID vaccine;
And Biden accomplishes all of the above with the narrowest congressional majority in history while the opposing party is unwilling to admit to the legitimacy of his election.
I have no doubt that whatever your expectations were for the first year of the Biden Presidency, the above dramatically exceeded them. In December 2020, you’ve likely assumed that after getting all this stuff done, Biden’s 2021 approval ratings are in the 50s and Democrats are walking around with their heads held high.
That is, of course, not the case. Biden’s approval ratings are down. Democrats are in a funk and the Republicans are cocky about their ability to take over Congress next year. The biggest reason for the general sense of malaise is that despite the availability of vaccines, the pandemic is still here and threatening to get worse. People are sick of worrying. Sick of canceling plans. Sick of getting our hopes up for normalcy only to have them crushed by yet another letter in the Greek alphabet. The pandemic-related rise in costs makes things even worse.
Hopefully, this next wave will recede soon. More people will get vaccinated and we will figure out how to manage the risk with open schools and an open society. But in my conversations with the Democratic activists who helped deliver the White House and the Senate, I am detecting another failure. One of which I have also been regrettably guilty — a failure to reckon with the frustrating reality of our political situation. This problem is exacerbated by Democratic leaders unwilling to tell hard truths about the difficulty of progress.
I don’t bring this up to pat anyone on the back, curb ambitions for bold policies, or excuse inaction. Democrats must come to terms with our current political situation, level set expectations, and develop a strategy to bridge the gap between the world as it is and the world we want. There are still lessons to learn from our current shit show.
The Hard Truth of Our Political Situation
Last week, the Democrats temporarily threw in the towel on their two top priorities — Joe Biden’s Build Back Better Plan and voting rights legislation. Negotiations with Joe Manchin and Kyrtsen Sinema on both issues hit an impasse. Now, Democrats promise to pick these back up next year, but two things are now clear. On Build Back Better, Joe Manchin’s position shifted so much that Democrats are forced to rip up the $1.75 trillion bill the House passed in November and start from scratch to satisfy Manchin’s ill-informed and conflicting demands. Voting rights, unbelievably, are in an even more precarious position. Democrats were optimistic about a compromise on the Senate rules. This compromise aims to free voting rights from a Republican filibuster, but Synema decided to gleefully rain on everyone’s parade and reiterate her nonsensical view that the rights of the Senate minority supersede the right to vote in this country.
This pre-holiday double whammy caused yet another wave of disappointment and surprise among Democrats, myself included. I was skeptical of the ability to pass voting rights. Yet I was (uncharacteristically) optimistic about the Build Back Better Plan. I believed it was a question of when, not if. Manchin engaged in some performative centrism by insisting on some cruel cuts to the bill; but in the end, something similar to the House bill would be signed into law. It wouldn’t be everything, but it would be a BFD.
This now seems highly unlikely. Something may still get done. Even if we only manage climate funding or the extension of the child tax credit, President Biden will have accomplished something historic.
Taking a step back for a hard-eyed analysis of the situation, it’s easy to wonder how we got our expectations out of whack in the first place. At the end of the day, this is a 50-50 Senate. Passage of anything and everything depends on the acquiescence of a conservative Senator from a coal-producing state that Trump won by 40 points. And even if you somehow convince Manchin to come on board, Sinema is waiting in the wings to upend the legislative applecart. It is fucking maddening, but it is also reality.
The big question Democrats need to ask isn’t “how do we convince Joe Manchin?” It’s “why is a party that has won the popular vote all but once since 1996 depending on the vote of one man from a very Republican state to do anything?”
A Structural Problem
The most important thing Democrats must recognize is that America is a center-left country with a center-right political system. Joe Biden won the popular vote by more than seven million votes, but almost lost because the Electoral College structurally favors Republicans. In order to win the presidency, a Democrat must win over voters more conservative than the median American. Turning out our base is necessary, but not sufficient to capture the White House.
Biden’s agenda is broadly popular according to every poll but goes nowhere because the Senate gives disproportionate power to sparsely populated, very Republican, rural states. According to calculations by Daily Kos, even though the Senate is tied, the 50 Democratic senators represent 56.5% of the U.S. population while the 50 GOPers only represent 43.5%.
The problem for Biden and the Democrats is structural, not strategic. There is no message, slogan, or speech to solve the problem because the system is set up to dilute the power of the majority. You may be saying “What am I supposed to do with this information other than jump out a window?” What do we do? We use our structural disadvantage to inform our strategy. We need to prioritize reforming the political system to make it more majoritarian. That means expanding access to the polls, eliminating the filibuster, statehood for Washington, D.C. and potentially Puerto Rico, and adding seats to the Federal judiciary including the Supreme Court
Manchin, Sinema, and some others are standing in the way of those reforms right now, but there are positive signs in the party. More and more Senate Democrats are open to and enthusiastic about eliminating the filibuster. The vast majority of Democrats campaigning for the Senate are running on filibuster elimination. If we are fortunate enough to expand our Senate majority by just two votes in 2022, I am confident the filibuster will be toast.
The second consequence of our structural disadvantage is that Democrats will always be in the position of persuading and compromising with people more conservative than we are. Even if Manchin and Sinema are no longer a factor, we still need Senator Tester of Montana or Angus King, an independent from Maine, or either of the temperamentally moderate senators from Delaware. Once again, this is maddening, but it is reality.
Not So Great Expectations
Every Democrat — myself included — did a miserable job of managing expectations and leveling with our most loyal activists, volunteers, and donors. My guess is that a lot of Democratic leaders knew where we were likely to end up on BBB and voting rights; passing either by the end of the year was a very long shot. But that is not the impression they gave. People were repeatedly told that “failure was not an option” and victory was right around the corner. Senate Democratic leaders announced a $3.5 trillion version of Biden’s Jobs and Climate even though they knew Manchin and Sinema were not on board with a plan that big. I am sympathetic to the desire to create momentum and know the difficulties of dealing with Sinema and Manchin, but raising expectations without acknowledging the very real obstacles to progress makes failure all the more costly. Democrats are equally furious and depressed because they think the party is failing to do something easy as opposed to trying to do something nearly impossible. Too many people are promising results on legislation like voting rights and immigration without articulating a plausible path to success.
If we were straight about the situation, the public would be more understanding of the defeats and appreciative of the willingness to take on tough fights when the odds are long. This failure puts President Biden in the position of being judged, not for his successes, but for his failures. And it lets the Republicans off the hook for their unanimous opposition to popular, necessary policies.
If we continue to raise expectations because we are afraid to tell people the hard truths about politics, we will end up distracting them from the existential threat facing our country. Millions of Americans fought like hell in 2020 because of the danger that is Donald Trump, but that danger is not gone. The Republicans are waiting in the wings to seize power through unscrupulous means and not give it back for decades. The fight is far from over.
Politics is hard. Progress is never a straight line, but we would all be better off if we reckoned with our political reality and treated the voters like adults. Maybe that will be my New Year’s resolution.