Who said this about the Senate and gun law reform after the indescribable horror in Uvalde?
“This is about basically protecting children. If they can’t rise to that, they ought to deep, deep dig inside and find out why in the heck we’re here.”
Who wants the Senate to cut prescription drug prices, raise taxes on corporations, add money for the IRS to do its job better, and offer tax credits for clean energy? And who has so far voted 95 percent of the time in line with President Joe Biden’s nominees and positions?
If you didn’t guess Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, you were wrong. And if you’re surprised, you shouldn’t be.
To be clear, Manchin will never be a progressive hero. He’s got corporate ties and sympathies. He was once on the board of the super-conservative American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). He’s worried about the federal deficit. He’s skeptical about government spending. He’s an unreliable partner. And, yes, that 95 percent score is in part because he blocks some nominees and bills before votes are cast.
But could another Democrat win statewide in West Virginia? Would progressives prefer a Republican over Manchin? It’s time to stop bashing him, and appreciate him for what he is—a Democratic ally, more often than not.
I’ve excoriated House Freedom Caucus Republicans who act as if the whole country is just like their districts, who think they’re entitled to impose their will on the rest of us. Well, America is not a giant-sized version of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s New York City district.
If Democrats are to have any prayer of hanging on to majorities in 2022 and 2024, they shouldn’t beat up on a Democratic senator from a state Donald Trump won by nearly 39 points in 2020.
I’m no fan of the filibuster, and I would have been deliriously happy if Democrats had been able to pass a sweeping voting rights bill, as well as the original Build Back Better budget bill—with paid family leave, universal pre-K, free community college, the expanded child tax credit, Medicare dental, eye, and hearing benefits, a bolstered care workforce for children and the elderly, carbon-cutting initiatives, expanded health care subsidies under the Affordable Care Act, higher tax rates on corporations and the wealthy, a huge investment in the IRS.
It was the stuff of dreams, and not just wild-eyed liberal dreams. Even Bill Clinton’s former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers—a Cassandra on inflation from way back—said the bill would make needed investments in the country and, since the spending was spread over 10 years, would not be inflationary.
Manchin’s vision is much narrower. If Biden is able to sign any kind of budget bill before the midterms, it will be in large part Manchin’s doing. And it won’t be a hard sell, given the broad popularity of raising corporate taxes and cutting prices on prescription drugs.
Which brings us to Manchin’s political instincts. They’re spot-on, as evidenced by his 57 percent approval rating at home, up from 40 percent in the first quarter of last year. The publicity he’s gotten for rejecting a few of Biden’s nominees and the president’s jumbo-sized BBB package has served him well at home.
I won’t lie, some of it has been uncomfortable for blue-staters like me. I was most shocked by Manchin’s opposition to continuing an expanded child tax credit that lifted millions of children out of poverty while it was in effect last year. It was jarring to read that Manchin reportedly said parents would spend the extra money on drugs. It was discouraging that he was holding out for work requirements that could hurt kids. And it was maddening to watch Manchin move the BBB goalposts time after time.
On the other hand, it was also maddening to see progressives and Biden ignore the political realities of Manchin’s tenuous position—as well as their own, with hair’s breadth majorities in both the House and Senate. And they often seemed to forget that Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona was also an obstacle—pro-filibuster even on voting rights (just like Manchin), and against raising corporate tax rates, even though she had criticized and voted against cutting them as a House member in 2017 (just as Manchin did in the Senate).
As for Manchin’s tax credit remark about parents, it is less shocking in context. Researchers have called West Virginia the “epicenter” of the opioid epidemic. Its overdose fatality rate of 81.4 per 100,000 people in 2020 was nearly three times the national average (28.3) and by far the highest in the country. In May the state announced what it called a “record-breaking” $161.5 million settlement with two drug companies accused of fueling the epidemic—the highest per capita sum in a national lawsuit.
But for all the trouble he causes, Manchin is more of a Democrat than a Republican. For now.
And he’s a constructive one. When he won’t get on board with his party, he often tries to come up with a third way that works for him and has at least a chance of drawing the 60 votes needed to move a bill forward (in this 50-50 Senate, that means winning over 10 Republicans). And he’s usually in the thick of any bipartisan deals in the works—from the landmark infrastructure bill Congress passed last year to current talks on BBB, to fixing the 1887 Electoral Count Act that nearly allowed Trump to overturn Biden’s victory and keep power after losing.
These third-way alternatives generally go in the direction Democrats want to go, even though they don’t go all the way. His counter-proposal on the Freedom to Vote Act, for instance, won an endorsement from voting rights activist Stacey Abrams, now making her second race for Georgia governor. The Manchin version was less sweeping than the House-passed bill, but it would have standardized election procedures and established a reasonable, flexible national voter ID requirement. Ultimately no Republicans signed on, but not for Manchin’s lack of trying.
Manchin obviously likes to be in the middle of the wheeling and dealing. In that sense he’s the Democratic version of some of the senators I wrote about in a book based on four case studies of what Congress can achieve when the right people are talking under the right circumstances. Sens. John McCain, Lamar Alexander, and Lisa Murkowski were among them. Murkowski is still at it and so is Sen. Susan Collins, another Republican.
That’s a role we need in Congress, so why not give Manchin some credit for it? He’s still in talks with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer on the climate, prescription, and tax bill. And he’s part of a bipartisan group trying to reach a compromise on gun laws in the next few days.
Manchin, who negotiated a bipartisan gun compromise in 2013 that fell a few votes short of the supermajority it needed, thinks that Uvalde can move the needle—that “this feels different.” You don’t have to be religious to pray he’s right.