Historians will record that the great Democratic meltdown of 2021 began on Sunday, June 6, when Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia wrote an op-ed for the Charleston Gazette-Mail. In his piece, Manchin reiterated his support for filibuster rules that require 60 senators to end debate and proceed to a final vote on most legislation. And he restated his opposition to the For the People Act, the constitutional monstrosity that House Democrats passed on a party-line vote in March and that Chuck Schumer has promised to bring to the floor of the Senate with dispatch.
The left was not pleased with Manchin. Jemele Hill of the Atlantic called him a “clown” and a “power-hungry white dude” who was upholding “white supremacy.” New York magazine published a blog that attempted to poke holes in what the headline called “Joe Manchin’s Incoherent Case for Letting Republicans Destroy Democracy.” The spokeswoman for Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois deleted a Tweet that said, “I don’t think our founding fathers anticipated the survival of this democratic experiment to rest in the hands of a man who lives in a houseboat.” Freshman Democratic congressman Jamaal Bowman of New York said Manchin is the “new Mitch McConnell.” (He meant this as an insult.) House whip James Clyburn likened Manchin to Emperor Nero. “What we have is a modern-day fiddling around in the Senate, and this democracy is on fire,” he told CNN.
But these denunciations were just as ineffective as previous attempts to bully Manchin by calling the filibuster racist. By sunset on June 7, Democrats on Capitol Hill were conceding to reporters that the supermajority requirement was secure for now, that the For the People Act was dead in its current form, and that the rest of President Biden’s agenda was—well, pretty much up in the air.
“Where possible, Mr. Biden will have to use executive actions to achieve many of his goals, such as reimposing strict regulations on power plants, automobiles, and trucks to combat climate change,” wrote Jonathan Weisman and Katie Rogers of the New York Times. The president who had been touted as the new FDR only a few months ago suddenly looked a lot like his former, less world-historical boss. In January 2015, when the GOP assumed full control of Congress, President Obama was left with just a “pen and a phone” to advance his agenda. It didn’t go far. Obama was a lame duck.
Of course, as of this writing, Biden’s party still controls Congress. Barely. And because Democrats hold 50 seats in the Senate, they still can use the parliamentary procedure known as reconciliation to pass tax and spending bills on a simple majority. For Vice President Kamala Harris to cast the tie-breaking vote, however, all 50 Democrats must stand united. That’s what happened, for example, during the roll call for the $2 trillion American Rescue Plan, though in the end Senator Dan Sullivan’s absence from the floor rendered Harris’s presence unnecessary.
Things get much more complicated, though, with Biden’s $2 trillion American Jobs Plan. The White House would like to reach a deal with 10 Republicans, but no one is really brimming with optimism that such a compromise will happen. If it does not, then Biden will be back at square one. “Should Democrats and Republicans fail to broker a deal,” wrote Mike DeBonis and Sean Sullivan of the Washington Post, “the White House will need every Democratic senator to rally behind the infrastructure bill on a party-line vote, making Manchin a pivotal figure capable of making or breaking a centerpiece of the Biden agenda.”
And so, midway through his 10th year in the Senate, Joe Manchin finds himself the linchpin of a wobbly Democratic majority. It was probably inevitable that he would attain this position. No one better exemplifies the realignment of voters by educational attainment that has transformed American politics over the past several decades. Manchin is that rarest of creatures, a genuine political unicorn, who has somehow managed to remain both a Democrat and an elected official in a state that Donald Trump won by 43 points in 2016 and 39 points in 2020.
It hasn’t been easy. Manchin’s victory margins have seesawed ever since he won reelection as governor in 2008 by 44 points. He won a special election to the Senate in 2010 by 11 points, was elected again in 2012 by 24 points, and earned a full term in 2018 by just 4 points. He represents a state filled to bursting with the non-college-educated white voters who have abandoned the Democratic Party in droves, but whose support Democrats cannot afford to lose by too much, lest the donkey go the way of the dodo.
Naturally, blue-state liberals take Manchin for granted. They alternate between happiness when he gives them a majority and ferocity when he acts like a red-state Democrat. It’s a pattern Republicans are familiar with. Consider the opprobrium hurled in Susan Collins’s direction whenever she deviates from the true course set by the Freedom Caucus. And recall the presidential fury that greeted the late John McCain’s “thumbs down” on Obamacare repeal in the summer of 2017.
The McCain comparison is telling. Whenever the Arizona senator broke from conservatives, the commentariat lavished him with praise. “Senator John McCain is a man of his word and a true hero,” Rob Reiner tweeted after McCain voted against repeal. “Compassion and heart wins the day.” Back then, Jemele Hill was a happy camper, reveling in the GOP’s disappointment. It wasn’t McCain’s independence of mind, commitment to legislative procedure, or bipartisan idealism that Reiner and Hill celebrated. It was his rescue of a Democratic entitlement—his effectual support, in this instance, for the progressive agenda.
The press labeled McCain a “maverick,” a charming “rogue,” when he embraced liberal positions on campaign-finance reform and immigration. Not so Manchin, who supposedly lives in “a make-believe wonderland” where he experiences “hallucinations,” according to Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson. Manchin is the “Senate’s Walter Mitty,” who suffers from “straight-up delusion,” wrote Robinson’s colleague James Downie. “Joe Manchin is prepared to be remembered by history as the senator who did little more than hope as his country’s democracy unraveled,” wrote Steve Benen of MSNBC.
A former Obama aide named Dan Pfeiffer saved the worst insult of all for Manchin’s ally, Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona. She’s a Democrat from a purplish state who also supports the filibuster. In his Substack newsletter Pfeiffer wrote that Sinema is “more Joe Lieberman than John McCain.”
Now that’s harsh.
On the progressive left there is nothing worse than finding oneself compared to Lieberman, the four-term Democratic senator from Connecticut and former vice-presidential nominee. Unlike the other Democrats who voted to authorize war against Saddam Hussein, Lieberman continued to support the intervention in Iraq even after it became unpopular. For his troubles, he lost a 2006 Senate primary to Ned Lamont (now Connecticut’s governor) but won the general election anyway as an Independent who continued to caucus with the Democrats. Lieberman stuck by his principles and retired under his own volition in 2012. Only in an addled liberal imagination does this seem like a tragic or ghastly fate.
The real enemy of the progressives is neither Manchin nor Sinema. It’s math. The country is far less left-wing than the neighborhoods where woke journalists and socialist Squad members reside. For decades, the two parties have been close to a stalemate. The difference between Democratic or Republican control of the United States is often less than 100,000 votes. What gives Joe Manchin his power is the brittleness of the current Democratic majority.
It’s something Democrats ought to keep in mind. Twenty years ago, in a fit of pique, Jim Jeffords of Vermont switched parties and handed the Democrats control of the Senate. Four years ago, West Virginia governor Jim Justice became a Republican less than a year into his first term. The next time Joe Manchin goes rogue, liberals may pay a far higher price than the For the People Act.
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