Passage of Joe Biden’s signature social-policy bill was never a sure thing, given the super-slim margins of the Democratic majority in the House and Senate. Biden may aspire to New Deal–like achievements, but as Economist correspondent Idrees Kahloon wrote last fall, “it is difficult to make Rooseveltian transformations without Rooseveltian majorities.” Seen in this light, Sen. Joe Manchin’s “betrayal”—that’s how furious Democrats have described his rejection of the $2.2 trillion Build Back Better bill in December—might say more about their overall strategy in the face of entrenched Republican opposition. If you don’t want a lone legislator determining the fate of a critical bill, do more beforehand to ensure it doesn’t come to that. That might have included heeding the warnings from progressive colleagues on the risk of decoupling Build Back Better from the infrastructure bill that passed in the fall; their fears proved well founded.
This isn’t to downplay the evident flaws of a system that allows one small-state senator to block legislation supported by tens of millions of Americans. Nor is it to let Manchin himself off the hook. By all accounts his announcement on December 19 (on Fox News, no less) blindsided Democrats, who believed Manchin when, just days earlier, he’d assured the president of his support for the bill. In the end, the senator said, he “just couldn’t get there,” in spite of trying “everything humanly possible.” What that means isn’t clear. He’d already succeeded in getting his colleagues to whittle the package down from its original size, yet still complained about the price tag and its impact on the national debt. One might conclude that Manchin never really intended to support the bill at all.
Many Americans stand to lose from Build Back Better’s demise, Manchin’s fellow West Virginians in particular. Its provisions on expanding dental coverage for Medicare, addressing childhood poverty, and investing in green jobs and clean energy would have done much to improve life in a state where the median household income is $51,615—$30,000 less than the national average—and whose primary industry, coal mining, is facing collapse. Polling from last fall showed a majority of West Virginians supported the bill. Manchin also scuttled what would have been the biggest climate package ever enacted by the United States. Build Back Better called for more than $300 billion in tax incentives to cut emissions and spur development of electric-vehicle and green-energy technology. Without these, we’re all but certain to miss the climate targets set in the Paris Agreement and fall short of commitments made at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow.
With a net worth of $7.6 million as of 2018, according to money-in-politics website Open Secrets, Manchin may not really be attuned to the needs of ordinary Americans. In taking sizable contributions from fossil-fuel lobbyists and the Koch brothers, he’s probably not all that intent on addressing climate change. As for handwringing over the national debt, consider his enthusiastic vote for the $778 billion defense bill recently passed—the largest since World War II, even adjusting for inflation. This was $25 billion more than President Biden had asked for, but Manchin raised no questions about the cost.
There’s talk that Manchin might still come around on specific provisions of Build Back Better. There’s also talk of his switching parties. But he clearly likes being the center of attention, and will probably remain so as long as the Democrats have exactly fifty senators.