Learning From Joe Manchin
Has the frustrating process of securing his vote taught Democrats anything?
When I saw the headline of Bill Scher‘s Washington Monthly essay “Lessons From Joe Manchin’s March to Victory,” I rolled my eyes. After all, victory is pretty much assured if you hold the deciding vote and are ruthless in using the associated leverage. But he makes some salient points, if perhaps overreaching in his conclusions.
Lesson #1: Don’t Rely on Self-Satisfying Simplistic Narratives
In April, Representative Ritchie Torres dismissed the notion of restarting negotiations with Manchin, because “he’s the saboteur of the Build Back Better Act, so I see no point in placating the implacable.”
Likewise, back in October 2021, when the fate of Build Back Better was up in the air, progressive muckraker David Sirota counseled Democrats to stop negotiating with the two Senate holdouts, Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema. Sirota wanted to apply grassroots pressure on the two moderates and force an up-or-down vote on the bill as is. He allowed that it might not work, because “they are sociopaths and because they’re positioned to get paid out for just such a ‘no’ vote when they leave office.”
But Manchin has proved not to be an implacable sociopath, just a clever negotiator.
The bill cuts carbon emissions, from 2005 levels, by 40 percent in eight years. But Manchin, advocating for his home state’s natural gas industry, secured provisions encouraging gas pipelines and fossil fuel extraction on federal lands. The deft balancing act has the support of the green Sunrise Movement, Shell PLC, and the biggest American natural gas company, EQT.
Often simplistic narratives are used to explain the behavior of politicians we don’t like. “They must be bought and paid for!” Such narratives may satisfy the narrator, but they don’t foster productive negotiations. If Schumer presumed that Manchin was nothing but a fossil fuel industry tool, then he wouldn’t have kept talking to him. Thankfully, he continued the discussions.
I think this is about 85% right. While I’ve defended Manchin’s right to vote as he pleases, the wishes of President Biden and the rest of the Democratic caucus be damned, the frustration was reasonable. There’s every indication that he told negotiating partners what they wanted to hear only to undercut them once out of the room. Further, while it’s indeed too simplistic to say he’s “bought and paid for” and “nothing but a fossil fuel industry tool,” he absolutely has a conflict of interest and certainly seems at times to be voting the interests of the industry above those of his constituents.
At the same time, he’s actually interested in governance. He clearly always intended to vote for a bill—and turned out voting for two very large ones—so long as it met his, admittedly shifting, parameters.
Lesson #2: The Overton Window Moves in Two Directions
Over the past several years, progressives have become enamored with a metaphor—moving the so-called Overton window, the parameters of what’s considered acceptable policy. In theory, the left edge of the Overton window can shift by proposing really big progressive ideas. Then what might have seemed radical before can become mainstream.
In the case of Build Back Better, progressives repeatedly floated massive price tags in hopes of mainstreaming a merely hefty price tag. Biden proposed the $2 trillion American Jobs Plan at the end of March 2021. One month later, he added a $1.8 trillion American Families Plan.
As Senate Budget Committee chair, Bernie Sanders pitched a $6 trillion offer. Representative Jamaal Bowman said anything less than $5.4 trillion was “unacceptable.” Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez outbid everybody with $10 trillion. Thanks to bipartisan negotiations led by Sinema and Manchin, the traditional infrastructure elements of the American Jobs Plan were peeled off and turned into the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. About a half trillion in new spending was approved by Congress, with support from 17 Republican senators, including GOP leader Mitch McConnell.
The rest of Biden’s agenda detailed in his two proposals—encompassing health care, long-term care, education, climate, tax reform, and poverty—was melded into the Build Back Better bill. A July 2021 $3.5 trillion budget resolution laid out the broad strokes and set the stage for a partisan bill using the filibuster-proof budget reconciliation process. By the fall, Sanders was insisting that “$3.5 trillion IS the compromise.”
But this Overton window gamesmanship was for naught when Manchin simply said no. “I’m comfortable with zero,” he reportedly told negotiators, setting his own Overton window pole.
Progressives’ mere assertion of arbitrary numbers didn’t give them leverage. No one believed that progressives had a limit on how low they would go, because something is better than nothing. However, since so many progressives believed the worst about their intraparty nemesis when Manchin said he was comfortable with zero, people believed that he preferred zero. The final number, $433 billion, is far closer to Manchin’s zero than to AOC’s $10 trillion.
Scher’s analysis is more-or-less correct, except that this isn’t about the Overton window. Or, if it is, it’s worked in the opposite direction he suggests. It has taken roughly 40 years of people yelling about the dangers of climate change to make action this large possible. It was preceeded by lots of more incremental action.
What Manchin has demonstrated is that he doesn’t give two shits what AOC or Bernie Sanders wants and that, indeed, standing opposed to them redounds to his political benefit. (And, I both hope and suspect, the same will be true of Biden should he stand for re-election. Being closer to Manchin than AOC and Sanders is good in a general election, helping dampen the charges that he’s some maniacal socialist.)
Lesson #3: Reconciliation Is Not a Shortcut
After Democrats rammed through the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, using the reconciliation process, on a party line, they were tantalized by the prospect of more party line legislation, unadulterated by bipartisan compromise. Rounding up 50 Democrats for a reconciliation bill that can’t be filibustered has to be easier than hunting and pecking for 10 more Republicans to overcome a filibuster, right?
In theory, forging a narrow majority of senators who move in lockstep is simple. But once legislation moves from the theoretical to the real, intraparty consensus is challenging. At a minimum, any Senate majority will be geographically diverse, which brings ideological diversity along with provincial interests. Moreover—as Manchin has shown—the potential 50th (or 60th) vote wields enormous power, so senators will always be incentivized to play coy.
Reconciliation provides a pathway for critical legislation that cannot easily attract a bipartisan supermajority. But that doesn’t mean it’s an easy pathway, let alone a primary means to govern.
A Democratic politician said in 2006, “I can think of nothing worse than being locked in that gilded cage of the Oval Office, occasionally hearing ‘Hail to the Chief,’ and knowing everything you do requires a consensus, and you don’t have anything beyond a 51 percent solution. You can’t do it!”
His name was Joe Biden, and he was right.
That’s a clever kicker but I’m not sure this should count as a third lesson. That getting major legislation passed when you have only 50 votes to work with really has nothing to do with reconciliation. So long as all 50 stay together—and the Parliamentarian agrees to allow the maneuver to be used on said legislation—reconciliation is very much a shortcut around the filibuster. If you don’t have 50 votes (and the Vice President) reconciliation is irrelevant; you’ve simply lost.