There is No ‘Manchin Dilemma’

He beats the alternative.

In “Democrats confront their Manchin and Sinema dilemma,” POLITICO‘s Burgess Everett and Marianne Levine outline the frustrations the majority party in the Senate have with their two most conservative members.

Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema hold the reins on President Joe Biden’s jobs and families plan, and their fellow Democrats are struggling with how to handle it.

Led by Manchin’s media tour on Sunday shows and in the Wall Street Journal op-ed pages, the two moderate senators are essentially dictating the final terms of what their colleagues have envisioned as a transformational social spending, tax and environmental package. Manchin’s willingness to take his argument to the public has progressives seething and has made him the focal point of angst within the Democratic Party’s small majorities.

Asked if he was aligned with Manchin on reconciliation, Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) cracked: “Are you crazy? Are you trying to get me shot? I’d never, ever want to be aligned with Joe Manchin. My wife would divorce me.”

Despite the headline, most of the coverage, as is usual, is about Manchin, who is far more vocal and gets more facetime on television than Sinema.

On Sunday, Manchin suggested he’d support spending at perhaps half that level, or whatever can be paid for via tax increases. Yet he wants smaller tax increases than envisioned by some fellow Democrats in Congress, potentially slimming the bill further. And with a 50-seat majority, whatever Manchin agrees to may be the final deal that can pass Congress.

“If we assume what he is saying, and you need 50 votes, it will be something less than [$3.5T],” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), a member of Democratic leadership, who rebutted Manchin’s calls to slow down consideration of the bill. “We’ve got some pretty big crises in front of our faces. We don’t have to wait until down the road, when we talk about wildfires and what’s happening with the climate.”

[…]

Manchin appeared on three Sunday shows, sparring with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who has narrowed his ambitions from $6 trillion in spending to $3.5 trillion. And the outsize sway of Manchin is wearing on some Democrats.

Several Senate Democrats declined to engage with reporter questions Monday about Manchin’s latest objections. Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) declared: “I can’t respond to everything Joe Manchin says, that’s not my job.” And after saying on Sunday that Manchin’s position to scale back the bill was “absolutely not acceptable to me,” Sanders merely stated that the $3.5 trillion package is “enormously popular with the American people,” when asked Monday.

Those reserved comments highlight Democrats’ reality: They need Manchin’s vote and criticizing him doesn’t help them.

“We have 50 Democrats, we need all of them,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) said.

There’s more but you get the gist: the more progressive members of the caucus think they’ve already compromised enough and are annoyed or worse that Manchin and Sinema won’t get on board—and seething that Manchin is being so public in his obstreperousness. But Warren has it right: Manchin is likely the swing vote that allows Kamala Harris to put the package over the finish line. He is, therefore, the left limit as to what’s in said package.

This is not a “dilemma.” It’s the reality of coalition politics. And, for Democrats, it beats the hell out of the alternative.

For all intents and purposes, the United States has a two-party system. And, while the parties are more ideologically and socially sorted than they have been in a very long time, they’re still relatively broad coalitions. When either party has a small majority—and it doesn’t get smaller than a 50-50 tie!—they’re going to have difficulty reaching agreement to take bold steps.

Like it or not, Manchin is about as liberal a Senator as one can imagine West Virginia sending to Washington. And, frankly, he’s likely to be the last Democrat elected to fill that seat in a generation. So, as frustrating as he may be to the more progressive wing of the party, he’s what stands between them and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Manchin is the only reason Harris is anything more than a spare tire.

Now, as Steven Taylor and I have noted ad nauseam, there are other reasons for Democrats to be frustrated. In a more representative system, they would almost certainly have a more comfortable majority in the House and a much, much more comfortable margin in the Senate. But, in the system that we have and are likely stuck with, Democrats should be thankful for Manchin rather than whining about him.

FILED UNDER: Congress, US Politics, US Senate
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. wr says:

    Personally I think it’s reasonable for Democrats to celebrate the fact of Joe Manchin and be frustrated by the reality of him. What you’re saying is essentially you should welcome the side-effects of chemo therapy because cancer is worse — I think we can embrace the treatment without pretending to enjoy the process.

    Sinema, on the other hand, is just a waste of space. Despite all his peacockery, I do believe Manchin has some core beliefs, maybe some that even transcend “I want to continue to suck up as much money from polluters as possible.” But Sinema, who once claimed to be a Green and a Bernie supporter, just seems to be doing whatever she thinks will get her attention. And Arizona isn’t West Virginia… not anymore, at least.

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  2. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    It’s not a dilemma if it all works out…in fact I’m willing to bet that both the Voting Rights Bill and the Infrastructure Bill end up being better for this process…but with a big caveat…this all assumes these compromises can get across the finish line. If not, and Manchin remains intransigent on the filibuster, then there is a serious fuqing dilemma.

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  3. MarkedMan says:

    I think you are too generous in assuming Manchin’s motives have anything to do with his innate conservatism or the will of his voters. He represents the energy interests in congress as well as the super wealthy in general. If you look at the specific things he objects to, they match much more closely with energy and wealth patrons than general conservative principles or the general voting population of his state.

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  4. Neil J Hudelson says:

    On the notion that it would be slightly easier for Dems if they had, at least, a 1 seat margin now would be a splendiferous time for Mitch McConnell to drop dead of a heart attack or otherwise be permanently incapacitated.

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  5. Andy says:

    The fact is that Manchin won in a state that went for Trump by double digits, something that no other Democratic Senator likely could accomplish.

    And the fact is that moderates are more vulnerable politically than those in safe seats because they must account for the threat of being primaried, but also the threat of actually losing an election. That latter concern is absent for politicians in safe seats. Politicians in safe seats, therefore, have more political room to compromise because the only thing they have to worry about is getting primaried. Yet these safe politicians are saying they are the ones who can’t compromise and demanding that moderates like Manchin are somehow obligated to commit political seppuku on their behalf.

    Also, we don’t have parliamentary parties in this country, we have glorified political brands. Yet so many people still assume that politicians have to do what “the party” wants like a parliamentary party. It doesn’t and hasn’t ever worked like that here.

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  6. HelloWorld! says:

    Who cares if a senator wears and R or a D next to their name if they are only screwing the progress their so called party is trying to make? It say put the letter that you really are next to your name. Both Manchin and Semina are using their “I’m a Democrat in a red state” BS to raise money. Yes, if Manchin was a Republican – he would lose. Thats no reason for WV dems to vote for him.

    I’m moving from DC to AZ later this month. So, if given the opportunity – I will be giving Semina a piece of my mind – and doing what I can so people like her who keep progress from happening are not in elected positions.

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  7. @Andy:

    we don’t have parliamentary parties in this country

    The problem isn’t that they aren’t parliamentary, it is that they are non-hierarchical and control of party label is in the hands of the candidate and the primary voters (and later just in the hands of the elected official who can change on a whim it suits them).

    Having said that, I agree with your basic assessment: there is no reason to assume that all co-partisans will toe the party line.

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  8. MarkedMan says:

    @Andy: But, as I said above, Manchin is not objecting according to conservative principles. His objections have to do with the interests of big Energy and big wealth.

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  9. James Joyner says:

    @HelloWorld!:

    Who cares if a senator wears and R or a D next to their name if they are only screwing the progress their so called party is trying to make?

    There are two and only two choices of party labels that allow one to run for and win a Senate seat. Manchin has likely always identified as a Dem. That he’s a moderate rather than a Bernie Sanders doesn’t make him a Republican. He is a vote for Chuck Schumer and a slate of Democratic committee chairmen vice one for Mitch McConnell and a slate of Republican committee chairmen.

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  10. Kathy says:

    The problem isn’t that Manchin is opposing parts of the reconciliation bill. It’s not that he opposes getting rid of the GOP veto of Congress (aka the legislative filibuster). the problem is he opposes both.

    He’s a cosponsor of the Freedom to Vote Act, unveiled today, which has no chance of passing while the filibuster remains in place. How does one interpret that as anything other than mere virtue signaling?

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  11. Brainster says:

    @HelloWorld!:

    Might help if you got her name right.

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  12. @HelloWorld!:

    Who cares if a senator wears and R or a D next to their name if they are only screwing the progress their so called party is trying to make?

    Two words: Leader McConnell

    Consider the following: the more progressive wing hectors Manchin out of the party, McConnell becomes Leader and then one of the 3 remaining liberal Justices dies unexpectedly.

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  13. Scott F. says:

    But, in the system that we have and are likely stuck with…

    This statement alone is sufficient to argue Americans have no right to claim we are an exceptional nation. It was fun being an inspiration while it lasted, but why would any nation, let alone a nascent democracy, look to the US as exemplary.

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  14. Scott F. says:

    Manchin’s obstreperousness is something the Democrats have to put up with due to the current conditions in the Senate, but his publicity whoring deserves some slapping down. The esteemed Senator from WV can stand on his “principles” without making such a grand show of it.

    Methinks Manchin is making his case so publicly because he’s absolutely floundering when he tries to make his case to his colleagues – on both sides of the aisle.

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  15. Michael Reynolds says:

    @HelloWorld!:

    Thats no reason for WV dems to vote for him.

    An amazingly clueless thing to say. It’s this kind of thing that marks progressives as unserious people far less committed to helping the folks we are meant to help, and much more committed to impotent posturing. It’s a childish world view.

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  16. MarkedMan says:

    @Scott F.:

    Methinks Manchin is making his case so publicly because he’s absolutely floundering when he tries to make his case to his colleagues – on both sides of the aisle.

    And, FWIW, I think Manchin is making his case publicly because that’s how he maximizes his value to his patrons.

    Six months ago I thought there was a possibility that Manchin was just an ineffective panderer with little understanding of the bigger picture. But since then all his behind the scenes maneuvering matches precisely with what the energy and wealth sectors wants. Being on the wrong side 100% of the time shows intent, not bumbling.

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  17. Andy says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    The problem isn’t that they aren’t parliamentary, it is that they are non-hierarchical and control of party label is in the hands of the candidate and the primary voters (and later just in the hands of the elected official who can change on a whim it suits them).

    I agree with that, but there are still a lot of people who talk as if the parties were like a parliamentary system where the party gets to “pass what it wants” as if it was a coherent entity instead of a collection of factions operating under a collective brand.

    @MarkedMan:

    But, as I said above, Manchin is not objecting according to conservative principles. His objections have to do with the interests of big Energy and big wealth.

    I’m not a mind-reader and I don’t pay much attention to WV politics so I can’t evaluate your claim about his motivations. My view is that the common thread among politicians is they want to get re-elected, so that is always their primary motivation. Principles? They almost always get tossed aside if it would mean not getting reelected.

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  18. MarkedMan says:

    I’ll give you an example. Polling indicates that additional taxes on the rich are very popular amongst all voters, R, D or I. And, “Getting the wealthy to pay their fair share”, is certainly something he could campaign on. Yet the thing that Manchin is fighting the hardest in the bill is the additional taxes on the wealthy. No other pay-for’s. Only the wealth taxes. He’s okay with the pay-for’s that target the middle to upper middle class. There is no plausible scenario where he ran a poll and his non-superwealthy constituents said, “We want to be the ones that shoulder this burden! Leave the poor rich guys alone!”

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  19. HelloWorld! says:

    @Michael Reynolds: Then keep voting for people whose values don’t line up with what you believe, if that’s the way you feel.

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  20. HelloWorld! says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: Then American’s will have to reap what the sow. If WV and AZ what conservatives to get them out of their substandard quality of life then elect and R. People like Manchin and Semina only feed Democratic failure, which keeps their states red.

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  21. HelloWorld! says:

    @Brainster: You do know who I’m referring to, troll?

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  22. Kylopod says:

    @Andy:

    The fact is that Manchin won in a state that went for Trump by double digits, something that no other Democratic Senator likely could accomplish.

    Jon Tester did. Granted, Montana isn’t anywhere near as red as WV. But it did go to Trump by double-digits both times, and Tester did hold onto his seat in 2018 just as Manchin did, even as other red-state Dem incumbents–in Missouri, Indiana, and ND–went down to defeat.

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  23. Barry says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: “Consider the following: the more progressive wing hectors Manchin out of the party, McConnell becomes Leader and then one of the 3 remaining liberal Justices dies unexpectedly.”

    You heard it here, first: shortly after such a shift, either before or after the mid-terms, Breyer will then and only then rsign.

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  24. HelloWorld! says:

    @James Joyner: Well, Republicans fall in line, while Democrats fall in love. I’m tired of getting Democratic presidents that are held hostage by a weak Democratic party. Obama’s last term was a joke. And don’t anyone try and say Susan Collins does the same on the right – when has she ever voiced opposition when it actually mattered?

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  25. Kylopod says:

    @HelloWorld!:

    And don’t anyone try and say Susan Collins does the same on the right – when has she ever voiced opposition when it actually mattered?

    Maine isn’t anywhere near as blue as WV is red. It voted against Trump by single digits both times, with him carrying the 2nd district. There really aren’t any Republican Senators from states that could be described as super-blue, the way WV is super-red–the last one was probably Mark Kirk of Illinois, who lost reelection in 2016. And he was one of the few Republicans to vote for several Obama initiatives at the time.

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  26. Michael Reynolds says:

    @HelloWorld!:
    I’ll just run down to the homeless encampment and tell them they’ll have to wait because progressives are simply too narcissistic, er, righteous ever to compromise their deeply-held values merely to help actual people in the real world.

    You know, you’re annoying a number of people here because you’re validating my skepticism about progressives.

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  27. HelloWorld! says:

    One more thing I have to say about this, then I am done. I usually just read, but I can see the replay of the last Democratic president happening before my eyes. The Democratic party has been weaker than Mr. Burns since Daschel and Pelosi took over decades ago. The truth is poor white people have no business voting for Republicans. WV and AZ are two states that really need to know that. Both senators are sticking up for the ultra-wealthy, raising lots of money, and preventing major industrial progress for our country. Also, a lot of Republican money went to keep Manchin in office – so its not a one way street that “a Dem in WV is a better alternative”.

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  28. HelloWorld! says:

    @Michael Reynolds: I’ll hold off on posting so superior people such as yourself can bloviate. Otherwise, I respect what everyone has to say.

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  29. Neil J Hudelson says:

    Advocating running out of the party two Dems, and handing over control of the Senate to McConnell, while simultaneously complaining that Obama’s last term was weak–you know, the one where he faced both houses controlled by Republicans–is…well, it’s a take.

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  30. HelloWorld! says:

    @Neil J Hudelson: Right now Republicans don’t have both houses. Manchin and Sinema could fall in line and still get re-elected. Thinking otherwise is the weakness I am talking about.

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  31. MarkedMan says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    you’re annoying a number of people here because you’re validating my skepticism about progressives.

    I’m definitely a “don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good” type of guy, but I am always happy to hear someone reasonably present viewpoints that differ from mine.

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  32. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: I’m more cynical that you overall about this. My neutral case scenario has Democrats not nominating another Supreme during the balance of my lifetime and possibly for 10 or 20 additional years. My worst case extention on that scenario is that I will live as long as my dad did–which moves the end of my neutral case model out to, potentially, 2060 or so. Fun times. Laissez les bons temps roullez.

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  33. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    Asked today about the Voting Rights Bill McConnell said:

    “there’s no reason for the federal government to takeover how we conduct elections”…adding…”we will not be supporting that.”

    In other news, Joe Manchin flew his Piper Saratoga to Kentucky a week ago.
    And there is your dilemma. Manchin knows this will go nowhere. He is just playing rope-a-dope and wasting everyone’s time.

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  34. Justin F says:

    If we don’t reform the filibuster we don’t pass voting rights legislation

    If we don’t do that, Dems will be a permanent minority

    If we don’t pass infrastructure people will say Dems did nothing this term (and they wouldn’t be 100% wrong).

    Manchin has to budge or this country is screwed. I hate to be reductive but that’s where we are at.

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  35. Andy says:

    @MarkedMan:

    Ok, but Manchin’s personal politics or positions he takes, whatever one thinks about them, were not my point. I have zero interest in defending Manchin and have not been interested in or followed his stated views except the tidbits that hit the national media where he opposes or supports some bill or proposal.

    I’m talking about coalitional politics generally and the weird way in which more vulnerable moderate politicians are expected to compromise to benefit the politicians in safer seats. Which also happens on the GoP side. The fact that it’s currently Manchin, Sinema, and perhaps a few others is just the current example of this.

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  36. Andy says:

    @HelloWorld!:

    One more thing I have to say about this, then I am done. I usually just read, but I can see the replay of the last Democratic president happening before my eyes. The Democratic party has been weaker than Mr. Burns since Daschel and Pelosi took over decades ago. The truth is poor white people have no business voting for Republicans. WV and AZ are two states that really need to know that. Both senators are sticking up for the ultra-wealthy, raising lots of money, and preventing major industrial progress for our country.

    Well, then the obvious thing to do is figure out how to convince those people to vote for Democrats instead. At least from my perspective as a non/anti-partisan, there doesn’t seem to be much actual effort to do that – quite the opposite in fact.

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  37. Andy says:

    @HelloWorld!:

    Manchin and Sinema could fall in line and still get re-elected. Thinking otherwise is the weakness I am talking about.

    Well, at best, that is debatable contention. Voting like progressives is very likely to result in their seats being won by Republicans. That progressives are perfectly willing to sacrifice moderates for a tactical legislative victory is not a sign of strength. Breaking a few eggs is fine as long as they are someone else’s eggs. That’s what happened with Obamacare which Democrats still haven’t fully recovered from.

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  38. Kylopod says:

    @Andy:

    Voting like progressives is very likely to result in their seats being won by Republicans.

    There’s a difference between “not voting like a progressive” and doing what Manchin and Sinema do. Mark Kelly, Jon Tester, and Angus King don’t vote as progressives, either, but none of them are constantly threatening Biden’s agenda.

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  39. Andy says:

    @Kylopod:

    Mark Kelly, Jon Tester, and Angus King don’t vote as progressives, either, but none of them are constantly threatening Biden’s agenda.

    Not publicly. My theory is that Manchin is serving as a useful shit-shield for a bunch of other moderates who aren’t saying much of anything or are dodging and weaving and hedging.

    I did read yesterday that Tester said 100% of any $3.5 trillion reconciliation package must be paid for. Which, as a practical matter, probably isn’t going to happen.

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  40. @Justin F:

    If we don’t do that, Dems will be a permanent minority

    Keeping in mind that I favor passage of both HR1 and HR4 and think that the filibuster needs to go, it is really important that everyone understands that the main causes of Republican advantage are more structural: too small a House, geographic sorting in districts, gerrymandering, and the very nature of the Senate. HR1 and HR4 fixes none of those things.

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  41. @HelloWorld!: I don’t think you are thinking through the consequences of your position.

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  42. MarkedMan says:

    @Andy: My whole point is that Manchin isn’t taking positions that will help him get re-elected. He’s taking positions to benefit his patrons and trying to spin them into something noble. He’s a corrupt phony, and his positions have nothing to do with any political philosophy at all.

    I don’t know anything about Sinema so I don’t have an opinion on her motivations.

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