Joe Manchin
Senator Joe Manchin, Democrat from West Virginia, speaks with reporters on Capitol Hill, Thursday, October 7, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Gary Gulman has a fantastic yarn called “Meltdown at Trader Joe’s.” The comedian describes his confrontation in the checkout line with a woman who had abandoned her shopping cart to get more groceries and then tried to reclaim her space ahead of him in line. Gulman recounts:

So I took a stand, which consisted of raising my fist—’68 Mexican Olympics style, completely inappropriate.

And then my slogan was “THIS ISN’T FAIR!”—thinking it would start a groundswell of support, and the people would rally behind me, and chant U-S-A.

 Silence. Silence! Except for a guy behind me who said, “Oh, here we go!”

I was reminded of Gulman’s frustration earlier this month, when hearing Senator Bernie Sanders’s vent about his obstinate moderate colleagues Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema. “It is wrong, it is really not playing fair,” said Sanders, “that one or two people think that they should be able to stop what 48 members of the Democratic Caucus want, what the American people want.”

Sanders’s no-fair cry has worked out as well for him as it did for Gulman. According to Politico’s daily “Playbook” newsletter, Sinema recently told a colleague that “I have already told the White House what I am willing to do and what I’m not willing to do. I’m not mysterious. It’s not that I can’t make up my mind. I communicated it to them in detail. They just don’t like what they’re hearing.” And The New York Times reported that “Manchin . . . has told the White House that he strongly opposes the clean electricity program,” intended to be the centerpiece of the Build Back Better bill’s climate sections, so “White House staffers are now rewriting the legislation without that climate provision.”

Wailing about fairness is emblematic of the impotent strategy progressives have deployed to steamroll Manchin and Sinema. The two moderates are treated as adversaries and singled out for blame and shame. The prized bipartisan infrastructure bill has been taken hostage. Humiliating leaks appear in the press, painting Manchin and Sinema as corporate lackeys. Confrontations in personal spaces have been tacitly or explicitly encouraged. In Sinema’s case, a primary challenge has been threatened.

And yet, Manchin and Sinema don’t budge. The negotiation process remains largely focused on winning their approval by figuring out how much to cut down the overall price tag and determining how many progressive proposals should be dumped or trimmed. The moderates’ leverage remains intact.

We can’t wholly assess the efficacy of negotiating tactics until talks are completed and we have a final bill, but the body language seems clear. Progressives are tearing their hair out. Sinema is taking in Europe.

Progressives can stay the course and hope that Manchin and Sinema will eventually crack under pressure. But with no indication that progressives are on the right track, the wiser decision would be to change course.

What could they do instead? Switch from negative pressure to positive pressure. Instead of tearing Manchin and Sinema down, build up support for the most important policy proposals. If Manchin and Sinema have enough power to decide what goes or stays in Build Back Better, make it hard for them to junk what you think is most important.

Just so I’m fair, let’s acknowledge that leading progressives—Sanders most prominently—have been trying to make a positive, even eloquent, case for the broadest possible version of Build Back Better, explaining what the bill would do for regular people and citing favorable poll numbers. But the marketing effort hasn’t been enough to galvanize the public, let alone apply significant public pressure on Manchin and Sinema.

Two recent polls suggest that while the main elements of Build Back Better attract broad support, that support is also thin.

CBS News found that universal preschool; free community college; Medicare expansion to include dental, vision, and hearing benefits; lower prescription drug prices; paid leave; and higher taxes on the wealthy and corporations all garner at least 60 percent support. Some top 80 percent. But support for the overall package was a milder 54 percent. And only 36 percent believe it would help their own family. (In CNN’s poll, a mere 25 percent said the bill would help their own family.)

The gap between support for individual provisions and the entire package is partially explained by cost. CNN’s poll found that 41 percent want “a bill that enacts all of the proposed social safety net and climate change policies,” while a moderate faction of 30 percent calls for a bill with “fewer of those policies” that “costs less money.” (Not passing any Build Back Better bill got 29 percent.)

Another problem bedeviling progressives is a lack of public engagement. As CNN reported, “just 16% of the public, including fewer than one-fifth in either party, say they’ve been following the news [about Build Back Better and the bipartisan infrastructure bill] very closely,” while in comparison, “in December 2019, 42% of Americans were following the congressional impeachment hearings against then-President Donald Trump very closely.”

In a competitive news environment, where information about congressional negotiations is shunted aside for breathless reports about culture wars or unsolved murders, coordinated messaging is essential. But as you can see in this Twitter thread from the Congressional Progressive Caucus, progressives are literally trying to sell 15 different policies at once. Furthermore, their marketing effort is eclipsed by their fights with moderates.

Last Friday, Sanders issued a huffy statement blaming “the mainstream media” for doing “an exceptionally poor job in covering what actually is in the legislation,” instead favoring coverage of “the politics of passing Build Back Better,” including “the opposition of two senators.” But Sanders himself has fed such coverage by feuding with those two senators.

Take this pitch from Sanders during his October 6th press conference:

At a time when millions of seniors have teeth in their mouths which are rotting, when they can’t afford hearing aids to communicate with their grandkids, when they can’t afford a pair of glasses to read a newspaper, does Senator Manchin believe that seniors are not entitled to digest their food and that they are not entitled to hear and see properly?

That’s a pretty powerful yet plainspoken summation of Sanders’s top health care priority of expanding Medicare, but he paired it with a passive-aggressive dig at Manchin, and that wasn’t the only one. So what headlines came out of the presser? “Sanders Blasts Manchin Over Spending Bill in Fiery Press Conference” and “‘Not Playing Fair’: Sanders Calls Out Moderates for Being ‘Vague’ on Build Back Better.”

On October 15th, Sanders went further. He placed an op-ed in Manchin’s home-state Charleston Gazette-Mail newspaper, detailing the Build Back Better provisions—including how it would begin “the process of cutting carbon emissions and transforming our energy systems away from fossil fuel.” On top of the ham-fisted attempt to convince West Virginians to give up coal, Sanders couldn’t resist scolding Manchin in the op-ed for holding up the bill. An unfazed Manchin quickly shot back, “This isn’t the first time an out-of-stater has tried to tell West Virginians what is best for them despite having no relationship with our state.”

Sanders should have seen that retort coming. Manchin went ballistic earlier this year when Vice President Kamala Harris did a TV interview with a West Virginia affiliate without giving a heads-up to her fellow Democrat. Harris was lobbying for the American Rescue Plan, for which Manchin’s vote was never seriously in doubt. The in-your-face nudge only frayed tempers. But since Manchin’s vote for Build Back Better is very much in doubt, perhaps getting his dander up isn’t the best approach.

Sanders has also implied that Sinema—who has refused to bless Biden’s plan empowering Medicare to bargain for lower prescription drug prices—is bought and paid for by the drug lobby. Without mentioning her name, earlier this month, he said, “Take a hard look at those people who are opposed to strong legislation to lower the cost of prescription drugs, and take a look at their campaign finance reports. See where they get their money, how many of them get their money from the pharmaceutical industry, and the executives there. And I think there will be a direct correlation.”

By directly hounding Sinema, activist groups are also distracting from the progressives’ ability to focus on substance. When protesters chastised Sinema in an Arizona State University bathroom, that generated far more headlines than any policy discussion. Undeterred, the executive director of the Sanders-founded group Our Revolution pledged to make Sinema’s “life unpleasant or uncomfortable” by “birddogging Kyrsten Sinema with her constituents until the very end.” Maybe there’s a proven history of converting politicians by photographing them being heckled in restrooms, but I’m not aware of it.

This isn’t to say that the left should be quiet and gentle in every circumstance. There’s no need to clutch pearls; the public is allowed to express their views vociferously to public servants. But there’s no evidence that invading Sinema’s personal space is doing anything but feeding her already preternatural obstinacy while crowding out any effort to explain what’s in the bill. So what’s the point?

Progressives’ approach has been shaped by mistrust. On Twitter, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wrote, “Build Back will die if BIF [the Senate’s bipartisan infrastructure framework] gets passed alone,” and said Sinema wants to “tank millions of people’s chances at healthcare, childcare, climate protection, & unions.” Since they don’t believe Manchin and Sinema want Build Back Better, they believe their only recourse is to force them to accept Build Back Better. But they lack the strength to win by force. This is speak-loudly-and-carry-a-small-stick diplomacy.

The only way to reach a negotiated agreement is to build trust. Channel energy into championing policies, not badgering pols. Treat Manchin and Sinema as fellow party members who share a common goal of a successful Biden presidency, not as enemies conspiring to take him down.

You may think that’s insane. But as the adage goes, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. You can either drag Manchin and Sinema over and over again, or you can try something new.

Bill Scher

Bill Scher is political writer at the Washington Monthly. He is the host of the history podcast When America Worked and the cohost of the bipartisan online show and podcast The DMZ. Follow Bill on Twitter @BillScher.