How can things end this way when the two Joes were made for each other?
Joe Manchin is from the hollows of West Virginia, raised in a small coal mining town, the grandson of an Italian immigrant, the local grocer. Joe Biden is from the hard streets of Scranton and Wilmington, where Dad worked in a used car lot. The two share nostalgia for bipartisanship, the filibuster, and the backslap. Each likes being liked.
It makes their spectacular, televised break-up Sunday all the more shocking unless you time-travel to a moment on Thursday when Manchin was on the phone with Biden’s team and the relationship could have been saved. Manchin didn’t like the statement on the status of Build Back Better the White House was about to release and by didn’t like, I mean he hated it so much he wanted to cut off negotiations right then and there. He asked why Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, who had her own objections (although she’s been maddeningly quiet about them), wasn’t named in the statement while he was, or why it couldn’t just say there weren’t enough votes in the Senate to pass the bill as written. To do otherwise, he complained, was to put “a target on his back.”
Manchin would have a stronger point if there were something negative in the statement under review that read: “In these discussions, Senator Manchin has reiterated his support for Build Back Better funding at the level of the framework plan I announced in September. I believe that we will bridge our differences and advance the Build Back Better plan, even in the face of fierce Republican opposition.”
Those are not fighting words and could only trigger a person already at the end of his rope. And, once Manchin went to Fox News to declare that he was a “no” on BBB, it became clear that Biden, too, was hanging on by a thread, as his press secretary quickly released a statement all but calling the senator a liar.
If only one or the other had just given a little. If the senator hadn’t been pushed to the breaking point by kayakers surrounding his houseboat docked by the fish markets a few blocks from the Capitol, by his house in West Virginia broken into, by attention once welcomed that had become a strain. If the president hadn’t been watching his chance at a FDR-like presidency slip through his fingers, as one vote stood between delivering help to the people shunned by the last White House or a historic loss.
There’s blame to go around for Armageddon, the principals and staff committing at one time or another each of the seven deadly sins, with the exception, as far as we know, of lust. Democrats in envy of the Great Society got gluttonous, shoe-horning everything but a bridge to nowhere into a single bill and giving it a title a third-grader might have come up with. They did all this knowing they had literally no margin for error in a 50-50 senate.
For his part, Manchin moved the goal posts after he got climate spending pared back, tax increase on billionaires reduced, and a lower price tag on the whole magilla at the cost of dentures, despite the pressing need in West Virginia and he was always clear to anyone listening what his problems were. Then came inflation that could be exacerbated by a large slug of government spending and outside factors like Russia threatening Ukraine and a new COVID surge beyond anyone’s ability to fix over cold pizza late at night.
With all that, emotions were running high. Manchin reportedly refused to take a call from the White House after telling them just 30 minutes before the broadcast what he was about to do. Maybe Manchin didn’t know that Biden was seriously considering a concrete counteroffer to the one he’d made at their Tuesday meeting. Manchin’s offer, delivered with a handshake and a shoulder-squeeze,included a $1.8 trillion package with universal prekindergarten for ten years, an expansion of Obamacare, and hundreds of billions of dollars to combat climate change restored.
That was an amazing give on Manchin’s part but it came with a claw back of the child care tax credit, the center of BBB, because of the gimmick of scoring it for a year to lower the bill’s overall tab, instead of the ten it deserved. Manchin’s proposal presented Biden with a Sophie’s Choice, but also left him with the impression that they were talking in earnest and would continue to.
Promises made. Promises broken. No wonder there was such a reaction out of the White House and progressive Democrats, and, on the other end, from Manchin on a radio show Monday morning.
“They figured, surely to God, we can move one person. We surely can badger and beat one person up. Surely we can get enough protesters to make that person uncomfortable enough that they’ll just say, ‘OK I’ll vote for anything’.” The show was being broadcast as Chuck Schumer, who never calls out Manchin by name, was circulating a “Dear Colleague” letter that said he’d be bringing the BBB to the floor in January so that everyone “has the opportunity to make their position known on the Senate floor, not just on television.”
In its first reaction to Manchin, before the part about the “inexplicable reversal” and a “breach of [Manchin’s] commitments,” the White House, that is Biden, sounded hurt about promises the Senator made at their most recent sit-down “to continue conversations in the days ahead, and to work with us to reach that common ground.”
But Politico reported on Monday that Biden and Manchin spoke on Sunday night and in interviews on Monday, Manchin made a point of stressing that it wasn’t Biden himself he faulted for the collapse. The president was “always willing to work and listen and try.” He said it was staff that had leaked negative information about him” that put him at his “wits end.” When we find out what the information was, we’ll understand the high drama.
I suspect that when the two Joes connected, they put their troubles in perspective and remembered better times when, like so many of us, they made promises to each other they intended to keep and then life intervened and connections got crossed. Unlike many of us, they’re foolishly optimistic, having gotten up off of the mat many times while remaining in the arena for most of their lives.
The saying about how life is short isn’t a cliche when you’re their age. What’s another round or two for the Joes if they leave the world better than they found it?