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Joe Manchin dashes Biden’s Build Back Better dreams. Here’s why he did it.


Congressional Democrats are furious at Sen. Joe Manchin’s announcement on “Fox News Sunday” that he’ll oppose President Joe Biden’s signature social spending plan, Build Back Better, effectively dooming the bill. They’re particularly incensed at the West Virginia Democrat’s argument that the nearly $2 trillion proposal is too costly and would exacerbate inflation, which is already growing at its fastest rate in 39 years.

Rather than shunning and insulting Manchin, congressional Democrats would be better off thanking the political fates that they still have a senator from West Virginia.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki issued a blistering statement denouncing Manchin’s announcement amid ongoing negotiations on what he would accept in the legislation. Yet she, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and other outraged congressional progressives shouldn’t be shocked — or even mildly surprised — by Manchin’s declaration.

They also shouldn’t buy his excuse that fears about inflation are driving his decision. The merits of the inflation argument are immaterial; they simply provide him an easy way out of backing the expanded safety net bill, which the Biden administration considers crucial to its agenda. Instead, it’s just smart politics for West Virginia’s last remaining Democrat in Congress to make headlines for sinking Biden’s signature issue, on Fox News no less. Particularly if the longtime officeholder is eyeing re-election in 2024.

“I’m from West Virginia,” Manchin said Monday in a local radio interview. “I’m not from where they’re from, and they can’t just beat the living crap out of people and think they’ll be submissive.” Manchin suggested in the interview that his comment referred not only to Biden administration officials who tried to pressure him on Build Back Better, but groups of protesters who paddled up the Potomac to bother him on his Washington houseboat or who confronted him in public spots in the nation’s capital.

Manchin only bolsters this case at home by the near histrionics of his party’s left fringe. Sanders, the democratic socialist, effectively said Sunday that he knew what’s good for West Virginia voters better than Manchin did. That’s about the least effective tactic imaginable to move Manchin when his intention in opposing the bill, inflation or no, is to be seen frontally challenging Sanders and the Biden administration.

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Manchin has maintained his position as deep-red West Virginia’s only blue statewide office holder by sticking to a centrist path as senator for 11 years. While Manchin usually sides with Democrats, it’s not uncommon for him to go rogue, as he did in February when he scuttled the nomination of Biden’s original choice to head the Office of Management and Budget, Neera Tanden. Or in March, when Manchin said he opposed a pair of House-passed gun control bills. Or in June, when he noted that he continues to back the Hyde Amendment banning almost all federal funding for abortions.

After all, Manchin’s initial Senate run in 2010 featured a campaign ad effectively denouncing the national Democratic Party. The spot showed Manchin shouldering a rifle and shooting a hole through a mock copy of congressional Democrats’ comprehensive energy bill. “I’ll take dead aim at the cap-and-trade bill, because it’s bad for West Virginia,” Manchin said. Manchin then broadened his message, pledging “to get the federal government off of our backs and out of our pockets.”

Indeed, Manchin has long walked a precarious political line in a state that supported Donald Trump for re-election as president over Biden by 39-percentage points, 69 percent to 30 percent — Trump’s second-best showing in 2020, after Wyoming.

Inflation now provides a convenient cover for Manchin’s stake to the heart of Biden’s agenda as the president faces sinking approval ratings. Biden and congressional Democrats want to spend nearly $2 trillion to, among other things, provide home health care for the elderly and disabled, and expand Medicare to cover dental care. These may be laudable public policy goals, but they’re not worth the cost to many West Virginians. A recent poll of state residents found tepid support for Build Back Better and much higher worries about inflation. Another voter survey showed Manchin had a 60-percent approval rating in West Virginia, nearly double that of Biden.

Whether Build Back Better’s enactment would actually lead to inflation is a matter of robust debate. Congressional Republicans insist it will. “Artificially injecting trillions into the U.S. economy is the exact opposite of what we should be doing and will only cause prices to increase even more,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican, said in a typical GOP talking point bashing the program.

Republicans have even pointed to inflation warnings from prominent Democratic economic voices, including former Clinton Treasury Secretary Larry Summers. But Summers and those who share his thinking were critical of Biden’s $1.9 trillion Covid relief law, the American Rescue Plan signed in March, for its risk inover-stimulating the economy and sparking inflation. (And whether directly linked to that spending or not, inflation has empirically risen over the past nine months.)

Summers has stated that those concerns don’t apply with Build Back Better, as have plenty of Democratic-oriented economists who argue inflation isn’t a big risk because the program doesn’t quickly inject borrowed cash into the economy but pays for a slow rollout of programs through tax increases. Jason Furman, Summers’ Harvard faculty colleague and someone who also worried about inflation from the Covid relief package, tweeted in November that Build Back Better would “have a negligible medium-term impact” on inflation, and that “if that is wrong the Fed could always adjust accordingly.”

But even if the inflation issue is a ploy, rather than shunning and insulting Manchin, congressional Democrats would be better off thanking the political fates that they still have a senator from West Virginia at all as the state has taken a hard-right turn over the past quarter-century. Manchin might not approve of Build Back Better in its current form, but he’s left the door open to another bill, and that possibility wouldn’t exist at all if he wasn’t giving the Democrats their 50th seat in the Senate.

Manchin has virtually all the leverage to write a new spending bill if he wants to — or not. While understandably frustrated, Democrats should find a way to work with him on what’s politically feasible rather than squandering any chance of that by venting their anger on the one person who could get at least some of their priorities passed.

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