The Democrats should have listened to Joe Manchin. As their “Build Back Better” agenda assumed legislative shape, the Democratic senator from West Virginia kept telling them what he didn’t like about it.
On Nov. 1, he decried the bill’s “shell games” and “budget gimmicks” and called it “a recipe for economic crisis.” He wanted to set up and fully pay for a few programs for 10 years. The bill House Democrats passed sets up more programs, but for only a few years; after that, the Democrats were counting on political pressure to get them extended, and maybe paid for. They appeared to think Manchin’s conditions were just a negotiating position -- even after he said that he would be comfortable if no bill at all got passed.
On Sunday, Manchin announced that he could not support the current legislation. Democrats should have realized long beforehand that he wasn’t bluffing. The fact that President Joe Biden lost West Virginia by 39 points last year should have been evidence enough. Democrats should have agreed to what he wanted.
He was, after all, right about the best way to structure the bill, as even some progressives conceded. If Democrats wanted a larger tax credit for children, they should have included a 10-year enlargement and ditched other parts of the bill -- as Manchin said. If they weren’t willing to sacrifice other initiatives, they should have left an expanded credit for another day. But the bulk of the Democratic Party in D.C. wasn’t willing to set priorities.
Democrats still aren’t listening. Instead of telling him that they will accept any version of the bill he wants, they’re throwing a tantrum.
White House communications director Jen Psaki snarked that Manchin should “reverse his position yet again, to honor his prior commitments.” Representative Pramila Jayapal of Washington state, who also leads the Progressive Caucus, is accusing him of “betrayal” and insinuating, dubiously, that a lot of West Virginians will feel the same way.
Her Minnesota colleague Ilhan Omar says Manchin is acting out of “corruption and self-interest.” None of this is going to get progressives a 50th Senate vote for what they want - and that’s assuming they have 49 to start.
It’s not just Manchin the Democrats are refusing to hear. Biden tried to garner support for the bill by saying it “is what 81 million people voted for.” A large segment of those voters, though, just wanted Donald Trump out of office.
Biden understood this political reality well in 2020: It’s why his convention speech dwelt far more on his character and Trump’s than it did on their policy differences. He campaigned for a mandate not to be Trump, and he got it. Only then did he try to convert his win into a mandate for the grab-bag of unrelated progressive policies that became Build Back Better.
Progressive activists are reacting to the failure of the bill by complaining about the structure of American government. Never mind that Democrats have been able to build governing majorities in that structure in the not very distant past. Never mind, either, that the last two years have seen several large spending bills enacted with strong bipartisan support, especially in the Senate.
Build Back Better was unusual in seeking to realize an expansive partisan agenda in a very narrowly divided Congress. Neither Bill Clinton nor Barack Obama tried to enact such large and far-reaching changes in spending when they had much larger margins.
The next stage of grief will be despair over the future of the Biden administration, if not that of democracy itself. Democrats have managed to make the bill a serious test for Biden’s presidency without ever having conveyed to the public what it’s even about.
But Democrats are going further, saying that Manchin has crippled Biden politically, both because they hope it will get the senator to change his mind and because they really are that worked up about what they see as his obstinacy.
Clinton managed to get re-elected after his health care initiative collapsed - and that was a long-drawn-out collapse, complete with an address to a joint session of Congress. Clinton’s comeback, however, involved moving rightward and scaling back his ambitions. His greatest legislative accomplishment following the health debacle was a center-right retrenchment of welfare policy. He said the era of big government was over, which was not really true but signaled that he would not repeat his mistakes.
The Clinton example of success after legislative defeat is, then, not one today’s Democrats are especially interested in learning from. Let’s see how well yelling at Sen. Manchin works instead.
Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a senior editor at National Review and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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