Bette Midler rightly apologized this week to “the good people of West Virginia” for tweeting about Joe Manchin: “He wants us all to be just like his state, West Virginia. Poor, illiterate and strung-out.”
Wealthy, literate, sober people from Appalachia—the kind who would follow “The Divine Miss M” on Twitter—understandably took offense. Crude stereotypes peddled by celebrities are not exactly the best way to get a testy pol like Manchin to “yes” on Build Back Better. But Midler had inadvertently echoed the sentiments of a man she detests, and illuminated why bringing him around is so devilishly difficult.
Crude stereotypes peddled by celebrities are not exactly the best way to get a testy pol like Manchin to “yes” ... But Midler had inadvertently echoed the sentiments of a man she detests, and illuminated why bringing him around is so devilishly difficult.
West Virginia, which ranks near the bottom in almost all health and education categories, is number one in per capita opioid overdose deaths, with thousands of others “strung out” and in danger of becoming statistics. So when Manchin said privately that many people in his state are using their $250-300-per-child tax credit to buy drugs, he was probably on to something. Same with his crack that a fair number of West Virginians would use family and medical leave to go deer hunting.
Of course this kind of argument-by-anecdote is no more valid than Ronald Reagan’s old stories about the Chicago “welfare queen” who used 80 aliases to get food stamps and other benefits. Food stamps (SNAP)—championed by the late Senator Bob Dole, among others—have lifted millions out of poverty and greatly improved food security. Now we have a chance to attack poverty from another angle. According to one reputable study, the child tax credit has cut child poverty by 40 percent since it began in July. That makes it—already—the most powerful anti-poverty program since the enactment of Social Security in 1935.
But before writing Manchin off as Scrooge, we need to know more about his actual position on the child tax credit, which many progressives believe is the centerpiece of Build Back Better. Can he support some extension of it (after it expires at the end of the year)? If he can’t, will progressive Democrats swallow hard and take what they can get, even if that means waiting until March or April, the timing Manchin has suggested?
Many Democrats feel that Manchin hasn’t been operating in good faith. He made a commitment to Biden that he would be for the bill in some form—then said on Fox News Sunday that he was a “no”. This led White House press secretary Jen Psaki to issue a blistering statement that was approved by Biden, who is famous for believing that the line “my word is my bond” is more than a platitude. Even if he and Biden start negotiating again in January—as Biden said he wants—that Sunday war of words did not bode well for re-establishing the Joe-Joe trust that will be necessary to get the process back on track. After they talked cordially for 90 minutes on Sunday night, Manchin went on a West Virginia radio show on Monday and continued his complaints about the White House, though he was careful to blame staff, not the president.
Even if he and Biden start negotiating again in January—as Biden said he wants—that Sunday war of words did not bode well for re-establishing the Joe-Joe trust that will be necessary to get the process back on track.
Manchin remains an agonizing mix of consistent and inconsistent. In fairness to him, he has been consistently unenthusiastic about Build Back Better. In early September, he called for a “pause” on the bill and has talked repeatedly about why he considers it inflationary, even though several economists and business executives have told him that it isn’t. And in a previously unpublished story I heard this week from a Senate staffer, he responded to a colleague’s question about what overall price tag he could accept with the line: “My number is zero.”
Was he joking? No one knows.
At the same time, Manchin has played the Wizard of Oz to progressives’ Dorothy. Much of the tiresome Washington back-and-forth has been in the vein of “bring me the witch’s broomstick.” When he wanted the price tag to come down below $2 trillion, progressives complied. When he wanted to delete the Clean Energy Plan (which penalized utilities that didn’t move away from fossil fuels), they complied. When he wanted to eliminate paid family and medical leave (which even some women Republican senators favor), they complied.
Progressives finally balked when Manchin came for the child tax credit. Was he for modifying it or eliminating it altogether? They couldn’t tell; he kept moving the goalposts. And his concerns about the deficit rang hollow. Funny how Manchin never wondered “how we will pay for” the $768 billion defense budget.
…in a previously unpublished story I heard this week from a Senate staffer, he responded to a colleague’s question about what overall price tag he could accept with the line: “My number is zero.”
On Monday, Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), leader of the Progressive Caucus, had a phone call with Manchin in which she asked him to revisit the scaled-back framework Biden released in October. The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent found out what happened:
She asked him to say what, specifically, in the House bill doesn’t match up with what Manchin did commit to in the framework (in his discussions with Biden), and to say what specifically in the framework he did not commit to and does not support.
The idea of this exercise, Jayapal said, is to create a baseline for future negotiations. “We need to move forward on as many parts of Build Back Better that we can get,” Jayapal told me.
So far, Jayapal has been a responsible legislator, abandoning the progressive bargaining chip when the time came by marshaling support in her caucus for the bipartisan infrastructure bill. Now she has no choice but to give in again to essentially whatever Manchin wants. That’s the distasteful reality of a 50-50 Senate. He’s holding all the cards.
The good news is that Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has announced that he will force an up-or-down vote on BBB after the first of the year. Manchin does not apparently want to be a John McCain here, giving the thumbs-down on the package, as McCain did in 2018 on repealing the Affordable Care Act. It was the White House’s snide comment singling him out as the major impediment to the bill that apparently led to the Fox News Sunday drama in the first place. The hope here is that Manchin will finally offer his true bottomline in advance of that, leading to a vote on the Manchin version.
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That package would still be a big win for the country. Manchin has been rightly arguing for months against the progressive demand that a wide array of ambitious BBB programs be funded for short periods of time. This is based on foolish progressive wishful thinking that these programs are so popular that they will not be allowed to expire after a year or two. Manchin echoes Nancy Pelosi’s point that the programs will do better if Democrats pick fewer of them and fund them for longer.
Manchin is also right that without more tax revenue (which Sen. Krysten Sinema, kissing up to the rich, stripped from BBB), the threshold for receiving the child tax credit will need to be lowered from $400,000 in family income. Liberals want the upper middle class to get the cash in order to maintain political support for the idea. But that is no longer affordable, not to mention that people making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year simply don’t deserve free money from the government.
What could be the deal-breaker for progressives is that Manchin also favors a work requirement for the child tax credit. At first glance, this sounds punitive on parents and their children. Manchin’s argument—beyond concern that recipients might use the money to buy drugs—is, as he put it in the West Virginia radio interview, “If it’s called a tax credit, you got to have a W-2.”
Manchin’s argument—beyond concern that recipients might use the money to buy drugs—is, as he put it in the West Virginia radio interview, “If it’s called a tax credit, you got to have a W-2.”
He has a point, but the deeper argument he might make is that Social Security and the Earned Income Tax Credit—the two greatest anti-poverty programs in American history—both require work, either before receiving benefits or while doing so. That reciprocity is consistent with the American social contract, even the updated one we need.
So while I don’t favor work requirements, I suggest progressives get used to the idea that all of these modifications—basically anything Manchin wants—is the price they will almost certainly have to pay. And while it might not be a fair one, it’s still worth it.
Twelve years ago, I covered the debate over what came to be known as Obamacare. When Republican Scott Brown won a special election in Massachusetts in early 2010, Democrats lost their 60-vote supermajority in the Senate. As a practical matter, this meant that progressive House Democrats would have to accept the watered-down Senate version, stripped of many provisions they held dear.
If you can believe it, many liberals—like former DNC chief Howard Dean— wanted to “kill the bill” because it was so disappointing. Fortunately Nancy Pelosi—in her first run as speaker—corralled the necessary Democrats for passage. But it was a close call. Democrats almost made “the perfect the enemy of the good,” as President Obama put it.
If today’s understandably frustrated progressives do the same thing, the consequences might be even worse than the demise of BBB. Notice that Manchin has not shot down press reports that Mitch McConnell wants him to switch parties. That would take the country back to where we thought we would be at this time last year, pre-Georgia runoffs—with a Republican Senate majority that would tie Biden up in knots and confirm none of his judges.
Yes, leaving that option open gives Manchin even more leverage than he already has. But even as short-sighted progressives do their best to make Manchin feel unwelcome in the Democratic Party, I don’t see him actually defecting. Look to the example of Senator John Thune, who may retire next year despite being the heir-apparent as the GOP Senate leader. As The New York Times gently put it, Thune would then be among a half dozen retiring Republican senators (starting with Jeff Flake and Bob Corker in 2018) who have grown “frustrated” with “the former president’s loyalty demands.”
In other words, Manchin will always have a better relationship with Biden than he would with Trump, whom he voted twice to remove from office. (Manchin has voted with Biden 97 percent of the time; he voted with Trump 50 percent of the time). Besides, Manchin knows Trump would likely support a true Trump bootlicker against him in the 2024 West Virginia GOP Senate primary.
Any other time in recent history, Manchin might’ve jumped. At Newsweek, I covered the conversion of several conservative “Boll Weevil” Southern Democrats to Reagan Republicans in the 1980s and the defection of Senators Richard Shelby and Ben Nighthorse Campbell’s to the GOP in 1990s. In the early 2000s, McCain almost left the Republican Party, and the late Vermont liberal Jim Jeffords did, shifting control to the Democrats. (I wrote a now-quaint cover story—credited to Newsweek Staff instead of to me!—explaining it). Jeffords quickly faded, and Manchin would, too, cast adrift among the Banana Republicans.
He’s much better off now, as co-President of the United States, determining the future of the country.