WWhat can explain Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema’s decision to scuttle voting rights protections? Why did they create a false narrative that the legislation had to be “bipartisan” when everyone, including themselves, knew bipartisanship was impossible?
Why did they say they couldn’t support changing the Senate’s filibuster rules when they only last month voted for a filibuster exception that allowed debt ceiling legislation to pass with only Democrat votes?
Why did they co-sponsor voting rights legislation and then vote to kill the same legislation? Why did Manchin vote for “talking filibuster” in 2011 and now vote against it?
Part of the answer to all these questions can be found in the giant wads of corporate cash flowing into his campaign coffers.
But if you want to get the full answer, you also have to look at the single most important factor that plagues nearly every national politician I’ve dealt with: ego. Manchin’s and Sinema’s are now among the biggest.
Before February of last year, hardly anyone outside of West Virginia had heard of Manchin and hardly anyone outside of Arizona (and probably few inside) had heard of Sinema.
Now, they are notorious. They are Washington celebrities. His photos adorn every major media outlet in the United States.
This kind of attention is addictive. Once it seeps into the bloodstream, it becomes an all-consuming force. I have known politicians who have become permanently and irrevocably intoxicated.
I’m not just talking about power, although that’s certainly part of it. I am referring to narcissism, the primal force that drives much of modern America but whose essence is concentrated in certain places like Wall Street, Hollywood, and the United States Senate.
Once addicted, the pathologically narcissistic politician can become petty in the extreme, taking every slight as a deeply personal insult.
I’m told that Manchin asked Joe Biden’s staff not to blame him for the Build Back Better delay and then bristled when Biden suggested that Manchin bear some of the blame. I was also told that if Biden wants to restart negotiations with Manchin on Build Back Better, he has to rename it because Manchin is so mad he won’t vote for anything with that name.
The Senate is not the largest deliberative body in the world, but is the world’s largest stew of egos fighting for attention. Every senator thinks he has what it takes to be president. Most believe that they are much more competent than whoever occupies the Oval Office.
Yet out of 100 senators, only a few are chosen for interviews on Sunday talk shows and very few have a realistic shot at the presidency. The result is intense competition for attention.
Time and time again, I’ve seen valuable legislation sink because certain senators didn’t feel like they were getting enough credit, or enough personal attention from a president, or insufficient press attention, or unwanted press attention, or that another senator (sometimes from the same party) was becoming too much attention.
Several people on The Hill who have watched Sinema closely since she became a senator tell me that she enjoyed all the attention she received when she gave her highly theatrical approval to raise the minimum wage, and has raved about her national celebrity ever since. as a spoiler
Biden prides himself on having been a member of the Senate “club” for many years before ascending to the presidency and argued during the 2020 campaign that this familiarity would give him an edge in dealing with his former colleagues. But it may be working against you. Senators don’t want the club familiarity of a president. They want a president who will shine the national spotlight on them.
Some senators get so crazy in the national spotlight that they can’t function without it. Trump had that effect on Republicans. Before Trump, Lindsey Graham was almost a normal human being. Trump then directed a great deal of national attention at Graham, transforming the senator into a bizarre creature who would say anything Trump wanted to keep the spotlight.
Not all senators are egomaniacs, of course. Most are on an ego spectrum from mildly inflated to pathological.
Manchin and Sinema are near the end. Once they got a taste of the national spotlight, they couldn’t let go. They must have thought that the only way they could keep the spotlight on themselves was by threatening to do what they finally did last week: ruin American democracy.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism