Saturday, December 2

Opinion | Sanders’s eruption at Manchin highlights a deeper party difference


Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) are separated by much more than substantive disagreements about policy, a gap revealed when Sanders unloaded on Manchin in an appearance on ABC News’s “This Week.”

The episode showed that the two men have fundamentally different ideas about how legislators relate to their party, in ways that illuminate the way party politics and ideology work in 2022.

For Democrats, it isn’t the ideologues who keep things from working smoothly. It’s the so-called moderates — people such as Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona.

The subject was Manchin again pulling back from supporting a Democrats-only bill that includes climate change provisions and corporate tax increases, after he had indicated support for both. Here’s what Sanders said about Manchin:

He has sabotaged the president’s agenda.

No, look, if you check the record, six months ago, I made it clear that you have people like Manchin, Sinema to a lesser degree, who are intentionally sabotaging the president’s agenda, what the American people want, what a majority of us in the Democratic caucus want. Nothing new about this.

And the problem was that we continue to talk to Manchin like he was serious. He was not. This is a guy who is a major recipient of fossil fuel money, a guy who has received campaign contributions from 25 Republican billionaires.

It’s highly unusual to hear a senator say that kind of thing about a fellow caucus member. But what has Sanders so mad isn’t the place Manchin ended up, it’s how he got there.

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Manchin is certainly a skilled politician, and in his deep-red home state, getting elected as a Democrat means he must be more than just ideologically moderate. He believes he must also be a visible thorn in the Democratic Party’s side.

But he has turned this into a game of cat-and-mouse that his own colleagues find infuriating. Sometimes he says he supports action to address climate change, but then he’ll turn around and kill measures meant to do just that. One day he’s a populist insisting we should increase taxes on corporations and the wealthy, and the next he’s torpedoing benefits for lower-income people.

All of which leaves those who want to negotiate with him, or those just waiting for him to say what he’ll accept, fuming.

But the problem is not that Manchin is just more moderate than his fellow Democrats. It’s that he doesn’t have any discernible core ideology.

If Manchin did have clear and consistent beliefs, Democrats could work with him. They’d know where he stands, and there might be an achievable compromise, even if it meant Manchin getting 90 percent of what he wants and the other Democrats getting only 10 percent of what they want.

But he isn’t. The real contrast on display here is this: For all his reputation as a far-out lefty, Sanders is simultaneously an ideologue and a pragmatist. For instance, while he has long advocated the creation of single-payer health care, he has voted for most incremental improvements to our current mess of a system. He argues for big change, but accepts that small changes are better than nothing. That’s someone other Democrats can negotiate with, even if they’re less progressive than him.

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By contrast, Manchin often positions himself as a centrist, but his centrism too often consists mainly in opposing whatever liberals want, for its own sake, and isn’t grounded in any clear set of beliefs.

You can see this contrast in two big debates.

First, the expanded child tax credit. This policy was widely credited with reducing child poverty, but Manchin started talking about attaching a work requirement and capping those eligible for the credit at family incomes of $60,000.

Fellow Democrats told Manchin this position would do away with the very things that made the program a success. But Manchin was unmoved. He didn’t give a meaningful argument as to why he wanted a work requirement and a means test. He just decided too much spending is bad in a vacuum, without weighing the downsides of spending against the consequences for millions of families and children of not spending that money.

Manchin also decided giving families money had to constitute an “entitlement,” which, naturally, is also bad. This reflexive position that a program giving families money simply must be a discouragement to work and initiative didn’t allow him to entertain the notion that the expanded child tax credit is an empowering policy.

The dynamic was similar on climate change. When Manchin ended talks over the most recent version of resuscitated Democratic agenda — which would have included hundreds of billions in tax incentives for a green energy transition, funded by canceling some GOP corporate tax cuts — he cited inflation as the primary culprit.

But here again, Manchin has not made any serious case that this particular package, which was dramatically scaled down from Democrats’ initial hopes, would even be all that inflationary. Nor has Manchin seriously argued that the consequences of whatever inflation that package would have allegedly produced would be worse for the country — over the long term — than killing robust action on climate change would be.

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Manchin’s lack of a discernible ideological core leads him to arbitrarily declare that one set of consequences (from inflation) should be controlling. Thus they don’t need to be weighed against the other set of consequences (not acting on climate change over time).

Democrats long expected Manchin to simply be moderate, pushing them to shrink their ambitions. What they didn’t understand is that Manchin wouldn’t see child poverty, soaring inequality and the cooking planet as consequences that figure in the equation at all. A party organized around the idea that those are unacceptable moral and policy catastrophes can’t bargain with someone like that.

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