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.