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 MovementShell 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.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Jax says:

    They haven’t won anything yet. Sinema’s gonna pull the football away again.

  2. Michael Reynolds says:

    Setting aside the Sinema nightmare for the moment, the lesson is that power is power, and complaining about power is not power. I’ve tried explaining this to progressives and liberals at different times and the blank stares say it all: people on the Left almost don’t hear the word power. It does not compute. They don’t know how to reconcile their world of wishes and demands with the reality that they have no power. It’s like watching bees trapped behind a glass window, bashing against it again and again.

    I’ll go back to core Left-wing framing being all about an academic paradigm – college-educated people who never grasp that the world is not college, and politics is not just about what you want, or what you think the right answer is. Does no one read Nietzsche anymore? You know, the will to power and all that?

    The game is not (sadly) right or wrong answer, but power and absence of power. If your right answer is going to matter, you need power. In order to achieve power you have to do, not just be. You have to work not just demand. You have to explain and justify. Calculate and balance. Make and maintain alliances. Learn ruthlessness. It’s easy to proclaim, hard to gain power.

  3. gVOR08 says:

    I”m continuing my policy of paying attention to this only after Manchin actually votes for it.

  4. Mister Bluster says:

    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.

    President FORD: When I was a member of the House for 25 and a half years, I used to look at the president and the vice president – those dictators at the other end, how can they be so arbitrary and difficult? Then when you shift from the legislating to the executive branch of the government, and you look at the Congress and say, why are all of those House and Senate members so irresponsible?

  5. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Jax: Ayup! That’d be my guess, too. (I wouldn’t be surprised by Manchin suddenly changing his mind, either. Then again, I’m 70 and can see the economic advantages of being able to grow oranges in the Yakima Valley, so I’m not sure how much I care anymore anyway. [which happens to be one of the big climate change problems globally, too])

  6. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Mister Bluster: You seem to be trying to remind us that this type of self-awareness reflection isn’t all that unique.

    What kind of a troublemaker are you anyway?

  7. Mister Bluster says:
  8. MarkedMan says:

    @Michael Reynolds: So your insight is that there are people on the left who don’t understand that everyone isn’t in the same page as them, have different priorities than they do, and so get frustrated and angered by all this talk of compromise and incrementalism? Just like the similar group the right has to deal with? And, in fact, every sufficiently large group?

    Or could it be that this is an inevitable cohort in any group and not some particular failing of lefties?

  9. Jay L Gischer says:

    When I read descriptions of Manchin as a “sociopath” I roll my eyes. The writer pretty clearly has never met a sociopath.

    The dude held a really good hand, it’s true. But he also played it really well. I would expect that’s how he, as a D, holds statewide office in an otherwise R state.

  10. MarkedMan says:

    FWIW, I think the only thing we’ve learned from this “victory” is that Manchin wants to run for at least one more term, and he greatly underestimated the reaction of voters when he played Lucy with the football again two weeks ago. I can’t prove it or even offer strong evidence but my guess is that Torres and Sirota were right at the time when they said there was no point in negotiating with Manchin. Something happened between then and now and I suspect it was Manchin realizing just how many West Virginians were pissed at him over his antics.

  11. Michael Reynolds says:

    Of course it’s an inevitable cohort, but I don’t care that there are more and worse on the Right: they’re the enemy. And if we were prancing from victory unto victory I’d smile benignly and say something like, ‘Oh, those kids!’

    Unfortunately we are getting rolled up on multiple fronts, so I expect ‘cohorts’ to recognize that in war time they are helping the enemy. If they are as committed to the cause as they claim to be, and if they understand that we are currently getting our asses kicked, they’d be more willing to compromise and more willing to accept message discipline.

    I am encouraged by AOC et al taking a benign view of the Manchin bill. It does a great deal on climate and has some other useful bits and bobs.

  12. Michael Reynolds says:

    I don’t think it was pressure moving Manchin but as some pundit (I don’t have time to chase it down) pointed out, the tick tock. We may lose the Senate in which case Manchin loses all power. This was perhaps his last chance to exercise that power. He got some goodies to show his constituents, and he has plenty of obstructionist cred to defend against the inevitable attacks from the Republicans.

  13. Just nutha ignint cracker says:


    Or could it be that this is an inevitable cohort in any group and not some particular failing of lefties?

    Well sure, but you can’t thump on the progs from that position. ++

  14. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:
    Yet we ask Republicans to thump on their extremes. We denounce them when they fail to do so. We mock them as being captives of their extreme cohorts. We call them cowards.

  15. Gavin says:

    Republicans love them some government handouts for the people and can’t wait to use the government to shovel free money to people.
    After all, corporations are people, right?
    The only disagreement is what specific people are benefiting… not whether or not to use the heavy hand of gummint to give handouts.

  16. JohnSF says:

    Looking in from the outside, if Senator Manchin holds the decisive vote, given the absence of a party system that can threaten his ability to remain in office, especially if the situation in West Virginia makes a Democrat threat non-viable, seems to the only course is to hold nose, swallow pride a pander to the Senator, however irritating he may be.

    As Machiavelli might have said, “don’t wanting the best wreck the good enough
    Can the measures Manchin will concede deal with some critical issues like some progress on CO2 emissions and strategic industries?
    Can the be part of a political strategy that’s can net-vote positive in November?
    Then bank it (and afterward, drown your sorrows, and stick pins in a Manchin doll 🙂 ).

    No good acting like you have a progressive majority, or hoping one will conjure itself if you perform the rites, when the sad, cold ,hard truth is there ain’t a progressive majority.
    And no way to get one this side of November. At least.

    Might be nice to figure out a way to pressure the good Senator, though.
    What might he want that no one else cares much about, and he couldn’t obtain by cutting a deal with Republicans?

  17. JohnSF says:

    edit test

  18. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Michael Reynolds: Speak for yourself. I don’t ask for any group to thump on anyone. And who’s the “we” you’re referring to? I’m not on your team. (And when did you get a team, oh great “not part of any identity” one?)

  19. MarkedMan says:

    @Michael Reynolds:I don’t disagree. And I am a bit reassured that AOC is one of the Dems most “extreme” candidates yet she has a realistic view of how progress happens, and a determination to be effective and not just “right”. Of course, the media can always find as many hysterical ninnies on the left as they want, but at least we can still point out that they don’t have any power.

  20. MarkedMan says:

    @JohnSF: Yep. I’ve noticed a fair amount of people in professional and personal areas as well as political ones who spend a whole lotta time pissing and moaning about how they aren’t allowed to make that one great leap to their goal. In fact they spend so much time kvetching they could have taken ten do-able smaller steps to get there and had a cup of coffee to boot.

  21. Gustopher says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:

    Then again, I’m 70 and can see the economic advantages of being able to grow oranges in the Yakima Valley, so I’m not sure how much I care anymore anyway.

    Columbia Gorge Orange Juice is delicious. Organic orange juice from the great Pacific Northwest.

  22. Gustopher says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    I am encouraged by AOC et al taking a benign view of the Manchin bill. It does a great deal on climate and has some other useful bits and bobs.

    Given the existence of Sinema, I’d rather AOC be talking about how the Progressives got completely rolled on this. I think that would encourage Sinema to support it.

    Just lie. “It’s a giveaway to corporations, and doesn’t do enough for meerkat residue” or whatever.

  23. DK says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    Yet we ask Republicans to thump on their extremes.

    Because their extreme wanted to kill Mike Pence over sore loser election lies.

    Our “extreme” wants to be nice to trans people and fix climate disaster.

    False equivalencies are all the rage with old whyte people these days, tho. That’s how Trump won and why the fascist GQP retains power.

  24. Tony W says:

    @Michael Reynolds: My frustration with the impotence of the left is that when we do have power, time and again we refuse to use it ruthlessly.

    Decorum and rules have their place, but if the enemy is throwing grenades the time for lofty rhetoric has passed.

  25. IAC says:

    As opposed to the Marxist Left trying to GAIN power ?
    “whyte” ?

  26. IAC says:

    Apparently Manchin was swayed with various Promises of items that could be done.
    Nothing on the List is carved in stone as “will be done”.