Inside the Manchin Gossip Swirl

Joe Manchin
Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images
Julia Ioffe
December 21, 2021

Things are quieting down here in Washington. Congress is out of session and most everyone has gone home, either to celebrate the Christmas holiday with their loved ones or to take advantage of a week off. Which is why no one expected West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin to, as one senior Democratic Senate aide put it, “kick Joe Biden in the dick, especially after all the care and feeding he’s gotten.” And yet. On Sunday morning, Manchin went on Fox News, the mouthpiece of the enemy party, and announced that, after all those months his fellow Democrats spent trying to placate his ever-evolving set of demands, he was pulling the plug on Build Back Better, half of Biden’s signature, legacy-defining legislation. One of Manchin’s staffers gave the President, who had personally coaxed and cajoled the stubborn Senator, 30 minutes’ warning, and then Manchin himself declined the President’s call before the cameras rolled. 

It sent Washington, which was now scattered all over the country, reeling. “I thought he would find a way to ‘yes,’ he likes to find agreements and get stuff done,” said a source close to Manchin. “But once I saw that he was going on Fox News, it wasn’t a surprise.” Democrats fumed—see above—and Republicans celebrated. “All around great day,” one senior Senate G.O.P. aide texted me on Sunday. 

But was it really that much of a surprise? Or, rather, should it have been? 

Manchin was never a “yes.” Since the summer, when Democrats began to plot how to pass both an infrastructure bill and a sweeping, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink package to address Democrats’ priorities, Manchin became the most powerful man in Washington simply by becoming a stick in the mud. For the last six or seven months, there has really only been one story in Washington: what does Manchin want and how can Democrats oblige him? There was also Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema, but she never loomed as large as her obstreperous colleague from West Virginia. 

And what Manchin wanted, Manchin got. Bernie Sanders wanted a $3.5 trillion package, but Democrats knew it wouldn’t get past Manchin, so it was whittled down to $2.2 trillion. But that still wasn’t enough. Manchin wanted $1.75 trillion. So the Democrats huffed and puffed and squeezed their wishlist into $1.75 trillion. But Manchin still wasn’t satisfied. He wanted to cut family leave, so the Democrats cut family leave. Nancy Pelosi, to appease her left flank, put it back into the House version, knowing full well that it would not survive the Senate because Manchin didn’t want it and if Manchin didn’t want it, it wasn’t going to happen. Manchin did want the bipartisan infrastructure bill uncoupled from Build Back Better, and so it was uncoupled, despite the anger of the left wing of the House Democrats, six of whom voted against the infrastructure bill in protest. 

But such is the math of Washington: in a Senate that is evenly split between Democrats and Republicans, one senator who doesn’t want something to happen becomes more powerful than the 49 other Democratic senators who do, and that’s certainly more powerful than six votes in the House, where the party can withstand a few more casualties. 

This is why the rumors, which return as predictably as the seasons, that Manchin will abandon the Democratic party are foolish. They speak more to a Democratic perception that Manchin is a turncoat, a Republican in Democratic clothing, and that, in the words of the Democratic Senate staffer, “he just doesn’t share our values.” (“I mean, what the fuck is a member of our caucus doing sitting in Mitch McConnell’s office three times a week?” the staffer added. “What the fuck is that?”) They amplify Democratic insecurities that they’re the gang who couldn’t shoot straight, that they don’t have the kind of party discipline that Republicans do, or that, in the words of the G.O.P. aide, “they’re not very good at this.” 

Besides, what could the Republicans offer Manchin? Chairing a powerful committee? He already has that, chairing the powerful Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. If he were to become a Republican, Manchin would have far less power as one of 51 Republican senators. He would have even less as an independent who caucuses with the Democrats. Under the current arrangement, he is the one senator Democrats need to unlock a magic and extremely ephemeral majority. It’s like he’s the magic ingredient without which the flower that blooms every twenty years will not blossom and so his whims must be gently attended to. 

Even now, the White House is walking back a scathing statement penned by Jen Psaki and signed off on by Biden, fired off in the heat of Sunday’s rage and frustration. Even after all this, Manchin will be wooed and apologized to because the Democrats need him, both to pass some salvaged, Frankenstein, face-saving version of BBB (which they will most likely do), and for pretty much anything else they want to get done before the midterms sweep them out of congressional power. Even if they hate him now, Democrats still need him, and as long as they need him, Manchin gets what he wants.

Who would give up that kind of power?

On Monday, Manchin, still smarting from Psaki’s slapdown, went on West Virginia radio to defend himself. His fellow Democrats, Manchin said, were “approaching legislation as if you have 55 or 60 senators that are Democrats.” 

And he’s absolutely right. Whether you think it’s long overdue reform or reckless taxing and spending, most everyone in Washington agrees the Build Back Better bill in any of its iterations was an immodest proposal. It was ambitious both in its scope and its price tag. This summer, the White House touted the bill as a “once-in-a-generation investment” in America’s society, which it very likely would have been had Democrats had once-in-a-generation congressional majorities to match it. They won those in 2008—Democrats had 58 Senators and a 22-seat majority in the House—and still barely managed to drag the Affordable Care Act across the finish line. And, in the face of militant Republican opposition, that was about all they were able to accomplish before the midterm bloodbath. Cap-and-trade, immigration reform, pretty much everything else rotted on the vine. This time, Democrats barely have a majority in the House and don’t have one in the Senate, unless Vice President Kamala Harris is in town to put her vote on the scales. It was ambitious, if not hubristic, to think that they could use alchemy to fudge the cold math of the U.S. Congress.

The talk among Republicans and moderate Democrats in Washington is that this is not what Joe Biden was elected to do. In this narrative, Biden wasn’t elected to be F.D.R.; he was elected to not be Donald Trump. He wasn’t elected to be a transformative president, but a boring one—an avuncular white man who could return the country to the normal that existed, however tenuously and crookedly, in the time before Trump. The BBB package was, to these observers, a massive misinterpretation of Biden’s mandate and more proof that Biden, who ran as a moderate, has taken a left turn that voters don’t approve of and didn’t want. 

The numbers seem to bear them out: independents, who were crucial to putting Biden in the White House, have largely soured on him. For all the polls that show that elements of the Build Back Better agenda are popular, there are other polls, like the one that came out of West Virginia earlier this month, that show the opposite. And because the G.O.P. can rely on a cohesive media ecosystem that generously pollinates social media networks like Facebook, a Republican narrative of Democratic overreach is resonating even in states like Virginia, which Democrats had begun to take for granted as a sure blue state. A once-in-a-generation bill in an atmosphere of a once-in-a-generation partisan war was always a tall order.

Like it or not, the system is working exactly as it was designed, giving smaller, more rural states outsized power through the Senate and the Electoral College to slow roll big, transformative changes. Sure, the Founding Fathers didn’t anticipate the rise of a two-party system—or the media and patronage networks that have grown up around them—but I’d argue that they pretty much intended this other part of it. 

Yes, the 49 Senators who are for the Build Back Better agenda represent far, far more voters than the 51 who oppose it, but the Founders did not intend this country to be a direct democracy or for the majority of Americans to determine the country’s destiny. (They didn’t count millions of Americans as Americans—or full human beings.) The awkward political compromise that was the Constitution—the first of many that the extremely legalistic Americans cobbled together—created a series of demographic sluices that gave us what we have now: a system of minority rule, in the racial, geographical, and pure numerical senses. And so we have a growing majority of Senators representing a shrinking minority of voters. 

Ironically, one tweak of the system that allowed for the direct election of Senators is why we have a political anomaly, a coelacanth like Joe Manchin. He is a popular Democrat in a state where Biden, the Democrat running for president, got less than 30 percent of the vote in 2020. These same voters elected Manchin—rather than his being appointed by a Republican state legislature, which never would have appointed him, a Democrat—and Manchin makes no secret that feels he has to represent them, a vastly Republican population, as a Democrat in the Senate.

If this is a tight rope to walk, then it is made much easier by the media, Democrats, and progressive activists. The more they shame and drag Manchin on social media, the better for Manchin. His voters hate the media, hate the Democrats, and conflate all of it into one big communist swamp. If the media and liberal Dems hate Manchin, then he must be doing something right. The more the swamp hates Manchin, the more Manchin can flaunt his independence from the swamp, the more he can be seen at home not just as a Democrat who stands up to Democrats. The more the media and liberals bash Manchin, the more they burnish his standing at home, and therefore, his chances of reelection, securing his stick in the Senate mud for as long as he wants to keep it there. It allows him to go on the radio, a day after kicking the President of the United States in the nethers, and say, credibly, “Well, guess what? I’m from West Virginia. I’m not from where they’re from and they can just beat the living crap out of people and think they’ll be submissive, period.”