How Joe Biden lost Joe Manchin — and how he can win him back

The huge comprehensive deal that Democrats wanted may be dead — but not all is lost

By Heather Digby Parton


Published December 20, 2021 10:01AM (EST)

Joe Biden and Joe Manchin (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Joe Biden and Joe Manchin (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

I expect you're going to be reading an endless number of hand wringing analysis pieces over the next couple of days about the deeply disappointing decision by West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin to go on "Fox News Sunday" after the Senate had recessed for the holiday and announced his decision to destroy the Democratic agenda — making it even more probable that the Republicans will win in 2022. Merry Christmas.

Now it is understandable why podcaster Charlamagne tha God asked Vice President Kamala Harris the other day which Joe — Biden or Manchin — is the real president. Manchin is powerful enough that he has veto power over the entire legislative agenda and he's apparently decided to use it to kill Biden's Build Back Better Bill (BBB). As he said:

I cannot vote to continue with this piece of legislation. I just can't. I've tried everything humanly possible. I can't get there. This is a no on this legislation. I have tried everything I know to do. 

Manchin went on to say that he believes the Biden administration should direct all of its attention to "the variant," although he didn't explain what exactly he thought they should be doing about it that they have been unable to because they were distracted by their legislative agenda. But then he's offered up dozens of different and conflicting reasons for his reluctance to support the bill during the entire process, stringing the White House along with vague impressions that he could be seduced, so this latest reasoning was no more convincing than any of them.

Manchin's always been unhappy about the amount of money being spent, fretting over debt even as his partner in sabotage, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., was the one who nixed tax hikes that would have easily paid for everything. This led to Democrats coming up with the idea of allowing program funding to "sunset" in just a few years on the logic that once enacted nobody would have the nerve to kill them. I have to say I think that's naive. It may have worked for the Bush tax cuts but that's just because Democrats are fools. It's true that their failure to end Obamacare is an example that proves such a case, but I think we have to acknowledge just how close they came to doing it. If not for one stubborn, dying, man with a grudge against Donald Trump it would have happened. And the Republican Party as currently constituted would positively revel in reversing Build Back Better if given the chance because they believe that creating chaos gives them power. (They are not wrong, unfortunately.) And it is wildly optimistic to believe that Democrats will hold on to the Congress and the White House long enough to fully entrench these programs in this polarized electorate.

Want a daily wrap-up of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.

Smart analysts like American Prospect Executive Editor David Dayen, who argued in the New York Times all the way back in October for simplifying the bill, saw this moment coming. Dayen suggested that many of Build Back Better's programs were impossibly complicated, bureaucratic and poorly funded in any case and some are downright counter-productive, largely thanks to the relentless demands of Manchin and Sinema who had turned the bill into a mess as everyone tried to figure out ways to accommodate their needs. Dayen wrote:

After grinding an expansive agenda into paste, Democrats should not expect voters to re-elect the pastemakers so that they can sculpt the paste into something useful.

He said "to be successful, not only in this legislation but in revitalizing Joe Biden's presidency and his party, Mr. Biden must enact permanent, simple, meaningful programs, and connect them to his argument about how government can work again."

The thrust of Dayen's political argument was that inefficient, kludgy programs do more harm than good since the public doesn't get it. Much better to do a few things well and restore the people's faith in government than try to solve everything at once and do it badly, reinforcing the view that government can't do anything right.

If the Democrats and the White House decide to give that approach a go and pick just a few programs that Manchin and Sinema have both supported in the past it will no doubt result in some very hard feelings among the various constituencies that will be left out of this round of legislation. It's a bitter pill to swallow. But this negotiation has almost certainly clarified that having such a small majority makes it extremely difficult to pass anything, particularly when dealing with divas like Manchin and Sinema who are perfectly content to walk away.

RELATED: White House officials stunned as Manchin ends Build Back Better talks with little warning

To those who say that the Democrats should never have decoupled the infrastructure bill from the BBB bill because that would have been leverage over Manchin, I doubt it would have gone that way. Manchin would just as easily walked away from that as well, particularly since it wouldn't have been bipartisan which is something he actually does care about.

The media reported that the White House was caught off guard when a Manchin staffer informed them of his decision only a half an hour before the interview was broadcast. He apparently failed to answer a call from the president as well which is more than a little disrespectful under the circumstances. Biden was displeased and signed off on a blistering comment from the White House press secretary Jen Psaki, more or less calling out Manchin for failing to act in good faith.

Want a daily wrap-up of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.

Some Democratic members of Congress reacted angrily to the news as well. Senator Bernie Sanders, D-Vt., wants the bill to come to the floor so that everyone can see who is voting against all the popular items in the bill. I'm not sure that would accomplish anything. Manchin and Sinema would be thrilled to have a "thumbs down" moment to show their independence. Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota called Manchin's excuses "bullshit." After all the work both Houses put into this, it's understandable. Millions of Americans who have been following this saga undoubtedly felt exactly the same way. It's infuriating.

But maybe they'll all take a break, come back next year and pick up the pieces. Oregon Democratic Senator Ron Wyden came out with a proposal already:

The New York Times reported that the White House is thinking along similar lines. So, perhaps all is not lost. The huge comprehensive deal that Democrats wanted may be dead but that doesn't mean they can't pass something substantial and meaningful that will tackle urgent priorities like climate change and drug prices.

If they can get that done, perhaps the American people will regain faith that the government can accomplish some big things — even if they can't do it all at once.  

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

MORE FROM Heather Digby Parton

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Build Back Better Commentary Democrats Joe Biden Joe Manchin Senate