The end is never pretty. But Senator Joe Manchin put Biden’s Build Back Better legislation out of its misery with striking efficiency on Sunday morning, delivering a decisive “no” not behind closed doors with an apologetic pat on the other Joe’s back, but live on national television.
Democrats are working their way through the first two stages of grief: denial and anger. White House spokesperson Jen Psaki provided both in spades in a response to Manchin yesterday.
First the anger: Psaki in effect accused Manchin of lying: “If his comments on Fox and written statement indicate an end to that effort [to negotiate], they represent a sudden and inexplicable reversal in his position, and a breach of his commitments to the president and the senator’s colleagues in the House and the Senate… Just as Senator Manchin reversed his position on Build Back Better this morning, we will continue to press him to see if he will reverse his position yet again, to honor his prior commitments and be true to his word.”
Then the denial: “The fight for Build Back Better is too important to give up,” wrote Psaki. “We will find a way to move forward next year.”
According to any remotely clear-eyed assessment, Manchin’s “no” is not a betrayal or a shocking U-turn, but indicative of a senator running out of patience. And it does doom Build Back Better. Yes, the West Virginia senator abruptly ended negotiations over the legislation. But he has been clear about his objections throughout — objections that many of his colleagues seemed to think would simply erode with time. As my colleague Matt Purple wrote yesterday, there’s no mystery as to why a senator who answers to West Virginia voters opposes the legislation.
Psaki’s harsh words are, let’s remember, directed at a lawmaker without whom Biden cannot pass a single new law or confirm a single nominee. Asked about their aggressive line against Manchin on Sunday, the White House said that “at every step this year it’s been a mix of persuasion and tough love.” But not all Democrats agree with the approach: one senior party aide told Politico that “whoever at the White House who thinks it’s a good idea to go scorched earth needs to be fired… He’s the president. He’s supposed to be an adult.”
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer too managed to mix sass with wishful thinking in his response to Manchin: “The Senate will in fact consider the Build Back Better Act very early in the new year so that every member of this body has the opportunity to make their position known on the Senate floor, not just on television,” he said. “We will keep voting on it until we get something done.” I doubt Manchin will have any qualms about expressing his view in Senate vote form.
Of course, passing something is not the same thing as passing Build Back Better. And while there exists a package that Joe Manchin would be willing to support, is it a package that can survive the House, where there is no shortage of factions ready to flex their muscles if their preferred policy doesn’t make the cut?
Has Manchin saved the Democrats from themselves?
For all the fury directed at the West Virginia senator in the last twenty-four hours, it’s worth asking whether Manchin has saved the Democrats from themselves. The party has already signed off on trillions of dollars in additional spending this year, inflation is at a forty-year high, and there is scant evidence that the country is crying out for a costly package that would inevitably have meant tax increases. The claim that Build Back Better was an anti-inflationary package was always a disingenuous rhetorical sticking plaster deployed by a White House wrong-footed by economic reality. It never did, and never would have, dissuaded voters of the link between public spending and price rises. And those price rises are voters’ number one concern right now.
The political consequences of the president’s legislative agenda hitting the rocks in a 50-50 Senate are surely less severe than the electoral consequences of a massive spending bill that fuels inflation and leads to middle-class tax increases. Better to be red-faced thanks to a failure in expectation management than to pass legislation that voters perceive as making their economic circumstances worse. As Chris Stirewalt points out, “partisans tend to assume that the policies they like are popular. This is true because they live in bubbles where everybody agrees.” Shocking as it may be to hardliners on both sides, your preferred policies aren’t always good politics. So it may prove with Build Back Better.
Another CDC SNAFU
Your correspondent is long past being surprised at CDC incompetence in response to the pandemic, but Bloomberg reports on a major mistake in how the agency tracks America’s vaccination program. A disparity between state-level and national numbers reveals that the US government has been over-counting first doses and under-counting second doses and booster shots. The result is that the official data has painted an excessively flattering picture of the country’s vaccine rollout. With the Omicron variant spreading rapidly, that is a most unwelcome reality check.
The shamelessness of David Rothkopf
Cockburn reports on an especially egregious example of Swamp shamelessness in the form of former Foreign Policy editor and Daily Beast columnist David Rothkopf. He is one of Ron Klain’s Twitter besties and can be relied on to take an unstintingly pro-Biden line in everything he writes. But he is also a paid agent of the UAE government. The next time Rothkopf delivers a pious sermon about the future of American democracy, remember that he takes money from a theocratic dictatorship. And ask yourself: why does the president’s chief of staff feel comfortable associating himself with someone so thoroughly discredited as Rothkopf?
What you should be reading today
Matt Purple: Build Back Better was doomed from the start
Luke Thompson: The inevitability of Kamala Harris
Charles Lipson: Why local crime hurts Democrats nationally
Charles Schmidt, Scientific American: Why is Omicron so contagious?
Niall Ferguson, Bloomberg: The bipartisan attack on American democracy
Kevin D. Williamson, National Review: The long run is here
President Biden Job Approval
Approve: 44.1 percent
Disapprove: 50.3 percent
Net approval: -6.2 (RCP Average)
Percentage who say the coronavirus situation in America is improving
October: 51 percent
Today: 31 percent (Gallup)