Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., talks with reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, July 21, 2022. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

About 16 months passed between President Joe Biden’s March 31, 2021, proposal for an “American Jobs Plan” and July 27, 2022, when Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Senator Joe Manchin struck a deal for a stripped-down climate, health care, and tax reform bill.

What did we learn on this 16-month legislative journey in which the American Jobs Plan became the Build Back Better Act and now the Inflation Reduction Act of ’22? To my eye, we have three big takeaways:

Lesson #1: Don’t Rely on Self-Satisfying Simplistic Narratives

In April, Representative Ritchie Torres dismissed the notion of restarting negotiations with Manchin, because “he’s the saboteur of the Build Back Better Act, so I see no point in placating the implacable.”

Likewise, back in October 2021, when the fate of Build Back Better was up in the air, progressive muckraker David Sirota counseled Democrats to stop negotiating with the two Senate holdouts, Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema. Sirota wanted to apply grassroots pressure on the two moderates and force an up-or-down vote on the bill as is. He allowed that it might not work, because “they are sociopaths and because they’re positioned to get paid out for just such a ‘no’ vote when they leave office.” Still, in Sirota’s view, further delay would allow Manchin and Sinema “to keep making ever-changing, mercurial declarations about parts of the legislation they and their donors dislike, and then they get to continue raking in campaign cash from industries that would benefit from hollowing out the bill.”

As of publication time, Sinema, who remains the decisive vote, had yet to announce her position on Manchin’s deal. So there’s still time for her to sink it. (Much speculation centers on Sinema’s reported opposition to closing the carried interest loophole, which benefits private equity, venture capital, and hedge fund managers.)

But Manchin has proved not to be an implacable sociopath, just a clever negotiator.

The bill cuts carbon emissions, from 2005 levels, by 40 percent in eight years. But Manchin, advocating for his home state’s natural gas industry, secured provisions encouraging gas pipelines and fossil fuel extraction on federal lands. The deft balancing act has the support of the green Sunrise Movement, Shell PLC, and the biggest American natural gas company, EQT.

Often simplistic narratives are used to explain the behavior of politicians we don’t like. “They must be bought and paid for!” Such narratives may satisfy the narrator, but they don’t foster productive negotiations. If Schumer presumed that Manchin was nothing but a fossil fuel industry tool, then he wouldn’t have kept talking to him. Thankfully, he continued the discussions.

Lesson #2: The Overton Window Moves in Two Directions

Over the past several years, progressives have become enamored with a metaphor—moving the so-called Overton window, the parameters of what’s considered acceptable policy. In theory, the left edge of the Overton window can shift by proposing really big progressive ideas. Then what might have seemed radical before can become mainstream.

In the case of Build Back Better, progressives repeatedly floated massive price tags in hopes of mainstreaming a merely hefty price tag. Biden proposed the $2 trillion American Jobs Plan at the end of March 2021. One month later, he added a $1.8 trillion American Families Plan.

As Senate Budget Committee chair, Bernie Sanders pitched a $6 trillion offer. Representative Jamaal Bowman said anything less than $5.4 trillion was “unacceptable.” Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez outbid everybody with $10 trillion. Thanks to bipartisan negotiations led by Sinema and Manchin, the traditional infrastructure elements of the American Jobs Plan were peeled off and turned into the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. About a half trillion in new spending was approved by Congress, with support from 17 Republican senators, including GOP leader Mitch McConnell.

The rest of Biden’s agenda detailed in his two proposals—encompassing health care, long-term care, education, climate, tax reform, and poverty—was melded into the Build Back Better bill. A July 2021 $3.5 trillion budget resolution laid out the broad strokes and set the stage for a partisan bill using the filibuster-proof budget reconciliation process. By the fall, Sanders was insisting that “$3.5 trillion IS the compromise.”

But this Overton window gamesmanship was for naught when Manchin simply said no. “I’m comfortable with zero,” he reportedly told negotiators, setting his own Overton window pole.

Progressives’ mere assertion of arbitrary numbers didn’t give them leverage. No one believed that progressives had a limit on how low they would go, because something is better than nothing. However, since so many progressives believed the worst about their intraparty nemesis when Manchin said he was comfortable with zero, people believed that he preferred zero. The final number, $433 billion, is far closer to Manchin’s zero than to AOC’s $10 trillion.

Lesson #3: Reconciliation Is Not a Shortcut

After Democrats rammed through the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, using the reconciliation process, on a party line, they were tantalized by the prospect of more party line legislation, unadulterated by bipartisan compromise. Rounding up 50 Democrats for a reconciliation bill that can’t be filibustered has to be easier than hunting and pecking for 10 more Republicans to overcome a filibuster, right?

Yet during this roller coaster 16-month period, Biden has signed several bipartisan bills into law, including bills addressing infrastructure, gun safety, Ukraine aid, and U.S. Postal Service reform. A bill providing billions for semiconductor manufacturing and scientific research is on his desk.

In theory, forging a narrow majority of senators who move in lockstep is simple. But once legislation moves from the theoretical to the real, intraparty consensus is challenging. At a minimum, any Senate majority will be geographically diverse, which brings ideological diversity along with provincial interests. Moreover—as Manchin has shown—the potential 50th (or 60th) vote wields enormous power, so senators will always be incentivized to play coy.

Manchin’s machinations did not produce America’s first reconciliation drama. During Donald Trump’s presidency, Senators John McCain, Susan Collins, and Lisa Murkowski put the kibosh on repealing Obamacare through reconciliation. In 1993, Bill Clinton managed to squeeze through Congress, without a vote to spare, his tax-increasing deficit reduction package using reconciliation. Playing the role of Joe Manchin back then was Senator Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, who got, according to the Associated Press, the “royal treatment” from the president and didn’t make up his mind until an hour before the floor vote.

Reconciliation provides a pathway for critical legislation that cannot easily attract a bipartisan supermajority. But that doesn’t mean it’s an easy pathway, let alone a primary means to govern.

A Democratic politician said in 2006, “I can think of nothing worse than being locked in that gilded cage of the Oval Office, occasionally hearing ‘Hail to the Chief,’ and knowing everything you do requires a consensus, and you don’t have anything beyond a 51 percent solution. You can’t do it!”

His name was Joe Biden, and he was right.

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.