Democrats never fully appreciated the service Joe Manchin provided them over the first 18 months of Joe Biden’s administration.

Even when his party convinced itself that its fluky Senate majority conferred a mandate to remake the American social contract and spent trillions in its pursuit despite the effect on inflation, Manchin was there whispering “thou art mortal” in Democratic ears. Those susurrations became louder in direct proportion to the threat to American pocketbooks posed by rising consumer costs. Almost alone, Manchin lent the Democratic Party some needed credibility on the foremost economic issue of our time. And then, Manchin just gave up. The senator set his hard-earned reputation alight, and the conflagration may yet consume his political career.

Manchin’s courage first failed him in July. The Democratic Senator whose office had spent more than a year insisting that “we cannot add any more fuel to this inflation fire” while “millions of Americans struggling to afford groceries” settled for a fig leaf. Democrats had cobbled together a bill consisting primarily of federal spending on climate-change initiatives, but they called it the “Inflation Reduction Act,” and that was enough.

By backing the bill, Manchin sacrificed more than he got in return. “Given the current state of the economic recovery, it is simply irresponsible to continue spending at levels more suited to respond to a Great Depression or Great Recession,” the senator said last year. By this summer, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, Manchin insisted that this particular spending bill “can’t be inflationary.” After arguing for months that taxing businesses and burdening consumers with rising costs was grossly unjust, he argued that tax hikes and costly regulations on the fossil-fuel industry were merited by cosmic notions of “fairness.”

But Manchin’s display of supplication didn’t go unrewarded. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer assured the senator that he would attach a proposal to fast-track fossil-fuel permitting to a must-pass resolution that would keep the government open into December. Progressives balked at the concession to a figure who had stymied their ambitions for so long, but assurances had been made. Schumer handed Manchin a loaded gun. All the senator had to do was demonstrate the mettle to hold his party hostage with it. That’s when the senator’s courage failed him again.

Facing mounting resistance to his attempt to offset the “Inflation Reduction Act’s” new costs with some relief, Manchin backed down. On Tuesday night, he agreed to move forward with a vote to fund the government without his permitting proposal. Manchin tried to clean up after himself by insisting that, if he had stuck to his guns, a government shutdown would follow, and that would “embolden leaders like [Vladimir] Putin who wish to see America fail.” The naivete demanded of the audience for a statement like this suggests they’re too young to vote, much less follow congressional machinations.

It’s been a mortifying experience for the Senator, one with long-term implications for his party. Manchin’s acknowledgement of the fact that Schumer cannot deliver his own caucus despite his assurances to the contrary renders the Senate majority leader a diminished figure. The secretive way in which the deal was struck infuriated the environmentalist left, while the reconciliation process that produced the “Inflation Reduction Act” scuttled any chance that Republicans would rescue Democrats from their activist class. But the most profound humiliations are Manchin’s alone to bear.

Here was a man who bestrode the Congress like a colossus. Manchin was “the man who controls the Senate,” a figure who wielded “an unfathomable amount of power over the president’s agenda,” and who chose “as his legacy to be the one man who single-handedly doomed humanity.” He was harassed in his residence, savaged by his colleagues in Congress, and demonized in the national press. It was all endurable, he repeatedly claimed, because he served only the interests of his West Virginians.

In the end, according to his own terms, Manchin betrayed his constituents’ interests. And they’ve rewarded this betrayal in kind. As of April, Manchin enjoyed the approval of 57 percent of West Virginians, up from just 40 percent in the winter of 2021. By the end of August, however, Manchin had become not just the least popular figure in the country, but the object of scorn in his home state where just 26 percent of respondents approve of the senator’s conduct in office.

The senator still reportedly clings to the hope that his permitting plan might slip through before the end of the year, but his comments betray his state of resignation. “It’s revenge towards one person: me,” Joe Manchin complained of Republicans in the Senate, who refused to rescue him from the consequences of his bad judgment. Inauspiciously referring to himself in the third person, Manchin insisted he had “never seen” the kind of “revenge politics” of the sort that would have the “extreme liberal left siding up with Republican leadership” at the expense of good policy.

That’s not “revenge politics.” It’s just politics. Moreover, it’s a political bind Manchin would not have faced if he had just stuck to the principle he spent over a year and untold sums of political capital establishing. As smooth an operator as West Virginia has known for a generation, Manchin spent the past three months retreating from defensible terrain. He deceived his voters, duped those who took his anti-inflation credentials at face value, and discovered that the environmentalist left’s true believers don’t do transactional politics.

For all his hardships, Manchin has saddled his party with an even more tarnished reputation on the issue of inflation. He has exposed how little control his party’s majority leader has over his caucus. He has secured for them a fraction of what they sought in the “Build Back Better” bill while encumbering consumers with higher costs. And in 2025, his seat in the Senate is likely to be occupied by a Republican.

Where once stood a consummate legislator, there is little more than a punchline in his place. Though it is hard to summon any sympathy for the senator’s plight. It’s so rare to see a politician punished for abandoning principle in the pursuit of parochial political advantage. If that’s “revenge,” a just universe is its author.

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