Is Democrat Joe Manchin really a “Jim Crow” loving, “white supremacist” and closet Republican? Or is he just someone who “doesn’t give a fuck about progressive backlash or caucus politics,” as a source familiar with Manchin’s thinking put it, “Just West Virginia.” Screaming about him may make Democrats feel good, but it’s not getting them anywhere, since the party’s problem is not that Manchin needs to confront reality, but that they do.
After all, we’re talking about a senator representing a state that Trump won by 40 points—a state that is literally giving away guns to entice people to get vaccinated (and all I got was a lousy sticker!). As Democrats react to Manchin’s announcement that he won’t support a party-line passage of a “sweeping” election reform bill (and his reiteration that he would not nuke the filibuster), I feel the need to restate the obvious: Joe Biden didn’t win a progressive mandate, and America didn’t elect 50 Bernie Sanders clones to the U.S. Senate, let alone a filibuster-proof 60.
Biden’s only real mandate was to not be Donald Trump. This talk about him being the next FDR or LBJ was a post hoc invention after Trump sabotaged the Georgia Senate elections, making it suddenly possible for Dems to dream big. What is more, there’s a way of looking at the election (we elect presidents via the Electoral College, not by the popular vote), in which Biden only narrowly prevailed, winning Arizona, Georgia, and Wisconsin by something like 45,000 votes.
In the U.S. Senate, the Democrats hold just 50 seats (with Vice President Kamala Harris being the tie-breaker) in a body that usually requires a supermajority to pass meaningful legislation. But even that fails to fully capture their tenuous standing. Doing anything requires 100 percent Democratic support, and Joe Manchin represents a state Donald Trump won by nearly 40 points. Forty! These are the facts, and they are unyielding. And they all point to the reality that progressives won’t be able to enact a progressive agenda. Joe Manchin is the fly in the ointment.
But progressives shouldn’t blame Manchin, et al; they should blame James Madison, et al. The truth is that Democrats simply did not (and perhaps cannot) muster the political power necessary to pass a purely progressive agenda, based on the rules of the game. Democrats should consider themselves lucky that they have Manchin at all.
To be grateful is to defy human nature. The resentment toward Manchin is understandable. Ask any police officer: domestic disputes tend to be the nastiest. We reserve our worst opprobrium for those we deem traitors, rather than adversaries.
Back in March, Al Sharpton telegraphed the coming assault, boasting about the “pressure that we are going to put on [Sen. Kyrsten] Sinema and Manchin is calling [the filibuster] racist and saying that they are, in effect, supporting racism.” The only problem? As liberal Bill Scher points out, “the filibuster is a tactic with no inherent ideological disposition. Cato used it against the authoritarians and plutocrats of his time. As the Civil War neared its close, the Radical Republicans (aided by Democrats) launched a successful filibuster thwarting President Lincoln’s plan to admit the government of Louisiana back in the Union, because Louisiana had not yet given Blacks the vote.”
Of course, Manchin’s opposition to the For The People Act, also known as HR1, opens up new lanes of attack for those hoping to brand him a racist. It turns out, Sharpton was ahead of the curve.
In response to Manchin’s Charleston Gazette-Mail op-ed, New York Rep. Mondaire Jones tweeted that Manchin’s piece “might as well be titled, ‘Why I’ll vote to preserve Jim Crow.’” During a conversation with CNN’s John Berman on Monday, another New York congressman, Jamaal Bowman, said, “Joe Manchin is doing everything in his power to stop democracy.” He went on to call the filibuster a “Jim Crow white supremacist relic.” Atlantic contributor Jemele Hill called Manchin a “cowardly, power-hungry white dude” and a “clown.” Writer and Morehouse University adjunct professor David Dennis seemed to suggest that Manchin’s decision was driven by “white supremacy.” Perhaps seizing on the zeitgeist, on June 14, something called the Poor People’s Campaign is planning a “Moral March on Manchin in West Virginia… from the hood to the hollers.”
John McCain was celebrated as a maverick for giving his party a thumb’s down, but you can bet the media and the Dems won’t celebrate Manchin’s fierce independent streak. Go look around online, and I challenge you to find anyone saying anything good about him. (Perhaps some Republicans would like to, but they know that doing so publicly wouldn’t be doing Manchin any favors at this point.)
Almost nobody, it seems, wants to consider that maybe Manchin has legitimate, even principled, reasons for his decisions. Maybe the For The People Act is flawed—as even ACLU lawyers concede. Maybe Manchin truly believes that America is divided and that passing partisan legislation will only fuel that. Or maybe he believes that the pendulum will swing back—possibly as soon as 2022—and Democrats might rue nuking the filibuster.
But entertaining such anodyne explanations is unsatisfying for Democrats who realize that their agenda may be stalling. Expect the personal attacks on Manchin—the impugning of his motives—to ramp up. If their opening salvo is to call him a racist, you can only imagine where this will end up. In the process, we may see something of a civil war on the left; this will serve to divide their caucus, as well as to remind many center-right Americans who don’t fancy Trump just how far left the Democratic party has lurched.
And what impact will this campaign of shame have on Manchin? As I sit here writing in the Mountain State, it seems to me that they don’t have much leverage. Indeed, the more they push him, the more they may push him away.
The better attitude for Democrats is to win the substantive arguments and then win more elections. Rather than trying to ram through their agenda via parliamentary trickery and party-line votes that require the arm-twisting of moderates like Manchin, they should actually run on an overtly progressive agenda, and then see if they can win the mandate. They should do those things, but I have a hunch that they know they can’t.