Joe Manchin
Senator Joe Manchin, Democrat from West Virginia, a centrist Democrat vital to the fate of President Joe Biden's $3.5 government overhaul, walks to a caucus lunch at the Capitol in Washington, Friday, December 17, 2021. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

On Sunday, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez vented on Twitter, “When a handful of us in the House warned this would happen if Dem leaders gave [Senator Joe] Manchin everything he wanted 1st by moving BIF [the infrastructure bill] before BBB [Build Back Better] instead of passing together, many ridiculed our position.” Her tweet came just a few hours after Manchin announced he would not support the ambitious, multifaceted bill. “Maybe they’ll believe us next time. Or maybe people will just keep calling us naïve.”

While naïveté was never my charge, I am one of those people who was publicly critical of the linkage strategy and argued that putting trust in the Democratic moderate faction was superior to mistrust. Therefore, a pundit accounting is in order: Was AOC right? Was I wrong?

On one point, the answer appears to be yes. Ocasio-Cortez pegged Manchin as an opponent of Build Back Better, whereas I was hopeful—maybe even naive—that he wanted to shape the bill to his liking and get to yes. But Manchin has said all sorts of things to suggest that he doesn’t want what Build Back Better aims to accomplish. There’s ample evidence that the West Virginian doesn’t want aggressive climate measures, doesn’t want to keep an expanded child tax credit, and doesn’t want to, in his own words on Monday, “dramatically reshape our society.”

But even if Ocasio-Cortez and other progressives read Manchin better than I did, it doesn’t automatically follow that AOC’s preferred linkage strategy would have led to passage of Build Back Better. Let’s not forget, progressives tried the linkage strategy for five months, blocking a House vote on the infrastructure bill twice. Nevertheless, Manchin and Senator Kyrsten Sinema didn’t budge, and both signaled that they were prepared to let the infrastructure bill die.

As I wrote in early November, “The cold truth is that if Manchin or Sinema really, truly want to kill Build Back Better, then they are going to kill Build Back Better—no matter what happens to the bipartisan infrastructure bill. They can’t be forced to do something they don’t want to do.” If Biden, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and the Congressional Progressive Caucus had not changed course, we might have ended the year with no physical infrastructure bill and no human infrastructure bill.

The Manchin conundrum does not mean that mistrust is a legislative strategy. In the spring and summer, several prominent progressive officeholders—eager to pursue partisan reconciliation—were openly dismissive of the possibility that a sufficient number of Republicans would support a bipartisan infrastructure bill, let alone provide the margin of victory in both chambers of Congress. Yet that happened. (On that one, I was more prescient. See here. Joe Biden is Charlie Brown. Joe Manchin—not Mitch McConnell—is Lucy.)

It’s noble to try and fail. But blowing a partisan reconciliation bill has steep political consequences, something I noted last January when exploring the debate over the filibuster: “When bipartisanship is the name of the game, blame for any failures can potentially be pinned on the other party. In one-party rule, all blame is yours and yours alone.” Witness the blizzard of bullets now being fired by Democrats arrayed in a sadly familiar circular firing squad.

At the very least, Biden and congressional progressives shouldn’t have put so much of their agenda in the reconciliation basket without knowing for sure that Manchin was on board.

On the contrary, Manchin signaled early—as in a February 4 interview hosted by the Bipartisan Policy Center—that he was uncomfortable with the reconciliation path. Amid the legislative process for the American Rescue Plan, which Manchin did eventually back, he lamented the process, saying, “We started wrong, and I think that Joe Biden’s advisers have led him wrong to start out in strictly a partisan direction. We should have found something that we could have voted on bipartisan first, and then gone down this [reconciliation] lane we when hit … a roadblock.” The red flag was waved, but since Manchin voted for the ARP, Democrats—fueled by the post-Obama, progressive narrative that bipartisanship is for suckers—concluded that the reconciliation path would continue to be fruitful. They nursed three conflicting beliefs: Bipartisanship is hopeless; Democrats alone can pass a giant social spending plan; and Manchin could be coaxed into it because he wouldn’t dare jeopardize his own bipartisan bill.

And yet, it’s the bipartisan infrastructure bill that is now law, while the partisan Build Back Better bill is not.

If Biden had taken Manchin’s advice on the ARP, expectations could have been much different and more easily met. When Manchin spoke on February 4, shortly after a group of 10 Republicans made a pandemic relief offer of $600 billion, he said a bipartisan compromise “could be somewhere a heck of a lot of north [of] 600 [billion] and it would be south of 1.9 [trillion].” He said of Biden’s team, “Why won’t they even talk about that? You mean it’s 1.9 or nothing?”

A few days after Manchin’s comment, Republican Senator Bill Cassidy, who had risked his political future to vote for impeaching Donald Trump, said the GOP’s initial offer wasn’t intended to be “our end point.” Yet the White House did not pursue further negotiation. Most likely, Biden’s team concluded that the Republicans couldn’t be trusted, and if they could get a bigger bill—including a transformational expansion of the child tax credit—with 50 Senate Democratic votes, they should. Why unilaterally scale back ambitions?

In hindsight, such logic failed on three counts. One, the infrastructure process shows that a sufficient number of Republicans were capable of compromise (the final bill has more than twice the amount of new funding than the initial GOP offer), and it didn’t pass with just Susan Collins. It garnered 19 GOP votes, including McConnell. Two, inflation this year suggests that the economy didn’t need all of the ARP’s $1.9 trillion in deficit spending to get us through the pandemic. (In April, Biden even said he would have considered a bipartisan deal of at least $1.2 trillion.) And three, slipping a one-year expanded child tax credit into the bill wasn’t such a great idea if 50 votes weren’t in hand for its continuation.

Knowing what has and hasn’t worked this year, what should Biden and the Democrats do now? Scorch Manchin for negotiating in bad faith? Pummel him for his family’s financial interest in coal? Accuse of him being a closet Republican? Conclude that he’s a lost cause and turn to flimsy executive orders that the Roberts Court can block, and the next president can repeal?

There’s another path: Turn down the temperature and keep trying to find common ground, which appears to still exist.

The Washington Post reports that Manchin had offered Biden “a $1.8 trillion package that included universal prekindergarten for 10 years, an expansion of Obamacare and hundreds of billions of dollars to combat climate change” but would let the child tax credit expansion expire at the end of 2021. Politico reports that talks broke down not so much over the remaining substantive disagreements, but because the White House ignored Manchin’s request to leave his name out of a statement acknowledging that a deal would not be reached before the holiday recess. On Monday, Steve Clemons at The Hill, who knows Manchin personally, wrote, “When I saw Manchin’s name in the presidential statement, I knew he would perceive it as a breach of process, a breach of spirit, a breach of Joe and Joe working this out.” But Clemons also expressed hope that, “when tempers cool after the holidays, perhaps the White House will see that with Manchin, temperament matters.”

(Recall what happened when Vice President Kamala Harris appeared on West Virginia television in an apparent effort to pressure Manchin on the ARP. Manchin’s immediate reaction was snippy: “I couldn’t believe it … That’s not a way of working together.” But soon enough, calm was restored, and after forcing some changes Manchin supported the bill.)

If Biden and Manchin sized up McConnell and the Republicans solely based on their historic intransigence or obstructionist rhetoric, then they wouldn’t have found common ground on infrastructure (and on other issues this year, including forced labor in China, hate crimes, and the debt limit). Similarly, no purpose is served by dragging Manchin for all of his weak excuses justifying his recalcitrance, even though they are extremely weak.

So were progressives right to be suspicious that Manchin would support a Democrats-only plan to pass an ambitious agenda? Yes, but that suspicion should have informed Democratic legislative strategy in January 2021. The White House and congressional progressives should have had a candid conversation with Manchin at the very beginning of the Biden presidency, made a clear-eyed assessment of how far he was willing to go, and set ambitions and expectations accordingly.

Instead, Democrats tried to shoot the moon, thinking they could pressure Manchin to come along for the ride, prompting him to brutally yank them back down to earth.

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.