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President Manchin

Osita Nwanevu
5 min read
President Manchin

Hey all. It’s been about a year since this newsletter first went out and I wanted to take a moment to thank all of you for subscribing. I’m humbled and grateful that there’s been enough interest to sustain this as a side project and I intend to keep it going for as long as I can.

It’s still a work in progress, and the plan is to try out and, if necessary, throw out features as time goes on. And the first regular feature to go, I’m sorry to say, is going to be Reasons to Be Cheerful. Simply put, there aren’t enough of them. Finding and choosing good news of broad enough interest to shout out week to week has been more time consuming than it ought to be. I’ll still keep an eye out though, and I’ll put that section back in whenever something particularly notable or interesting grabs my attention.

As always, I’m also open to your suggestions for subjects ⁠— cheery and not ⁠— you’d like to see me cover. And don’t forget to send in questions for Mail Time! I’ve been skipping it whenever the inbox is empty, but I do enjoy hearing from you and being prompted:

Thanks again! Let’s hop to it.


I’m disappointed, but not at all surprised. The Washington Post:

Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) told Democratic leaders Thursday he would not support an economic package this month that contains new spending on climate change or new tax increases targeting wealthy individuals and corporations, marking a massive setback for party lawmakers who had hoped to advance a central element of their agenda before the midterm elections this fall.
The major shift in negotiations — confirmed by two people familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the talks — threatened to upend the delicate process to adopt the party’s signature economic package seven months after Manchin scuttled the original, roughly $2 trillion Build Back Better Act, which President Biden had endorsed.

All that would really be left of the package if this holds would be provisions to lower drug costs for seniors and some ACA subsidies ⁠— barely better than nothing relative to all Democrats and the administration had hoped for.

Manchin’s excuse here is that he’s worried about inflation. But the tax increases that were on the table likely would have been counter-inflationary if anything, and it’s implausible that the climate provisions being discussed ⁠— mostly tax credits for electric vehicles and clean energy ⁠— would have worsened inflation very much at all. And while he’s said that he’ll make a final decision on these portions of the package once new inflation numbers come out in August, this latest punt seems like definitive proof of what I and others on the left have been saying about these negotiations all along ⁠— Manchin’s simply been trying to draw out the process long enough to kill or neuter much of Biden’s domestic agenda. The passage of the bipartisan infrastructure bill left the administration without any real leverage over him; Democrats in the Senate have no choice now but to scrape something pitiful together before the September 30 reconciliation deadline.

All of this was foreseeable; a number of pundits have spent the past year insisting Manchin’s been negotiating in good faith, in earnest pursuit of a decent bill, anyway. After he expressed support for emphasizing climate provisions in the reconciliation package last year, it was said that jettisoning most of the rest of BBB and prioritizing climate would yield a good, even historic deal. Progressives and the administration just had to grow up ⁠— realize the reality of the situation, shrink their sprawling set of demands, and take Manchin’s stated positions seriously. They did. This is the result.

None of this is to say that progressives had a real way over or around him. There was talk on the left in 2020 about getting to Manchin by directly rallying the public in West Virginia. That might have been worth a shot. But realistically, even a President Sanders would have been in a real bind here. Joe Manchin is a conservative Democrat. He’s personally and politically invested in shoring up big business in general and the fossil fuel industry in particular. He’s likely to win any Democratic primary challenge against him; the worst he has to fear from the electorate turning against him ⁠— as they might anyway come 2024 ⁠— is an early retirement and more time to spend with his family and his millions than he’d planned.

This didn't leave Democrats with a lot to work with beyond the infrastructure bill, which they handed to Manchin for free. The kind of naked graft and skullduggery that used to smooth out problems like him doesn’t happen too much anymore, and I don’t know how successful a real effort to intimidate him would have been. People have mentioned Johnson a lot over the past year. While his legendary habits of persuasion and images of him giving people "The Treatment" have lodged themselves in the popular imagination, the truth is that the legislative success of the Great Society agenda relied more upon the supermajorities Democrats held during his presidency and the support of liberal Republicans than on domineering personal politics on Johnson’s part. Major bills from the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965 to the Social Security Act of 1965, which created Medicaid and Medicare, were passed with 60-70+ votes in the Senate. It was a different world ⁠— Democratic strength and the ideological and geographic diversity of both parties at the time made those kinds of broad, bipartisan coalitions possible. Things would have gone very differently if a narrow, liberal Democratic majority had specifically needed Strom Thurmond’s vote.

The only way out of the hole we’re in is an ideological realignment, plain and simple. This is what the popularists who’ve spent the last year sticking their necks out in Manchin’s defense refuse to understand. A Democratic electoral strategy built upon the success of moderate to conservative candidates will fundamentally undermine the party’s ability to pass even a moderate agenda. As I’ve said many times now, that strategy is already producing diminishing returns for the party at the ballot box. But the lesson of Obama’s first term ought to have been that it’s a strategy that also destroys the party’s capacity to govern, even when candidates like Manchin win. There aren’t any easy alternatives. A left candidate isn’t going to take West Virginia any time soon. The task is building up infrastructure and converting the electorate in the long run, a project the Democratic Party isn’t interested in pursuing. But the left can chart its own course here. With more time and more disappointments, more and more rank-and-file Democrats will probably join us.

A Song

"Baltimore" - The Tamlins (1980). A cover of the Randy Newman and Nina Simone classic and a great find from reader Max Gudmunson. Thanks Max!