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Does It Matter Whether Manchin Was Right?
Seems like it would
There has been much gnashing of teeth among Democrats since Sunday over the fact that Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia reiterated his opposition to the Build Back Better bill finally and more definitively than he had before. That he did so on Fox News read to many as a particularly nasty poke in the eye. Why did he walk away from the table? Was he upset at harassment of his family? Was it just hippie punching to save a seat likely doomed in 2024 anyway?
Doesn't it matter whether, you know, he was right?
By “right” I don’t mean that every objection he had to the bill was correct, or that his every policy priority was optimal. But if the question is “was this a good bill,” it seems like almost everyone I’ve read would answer “no.” Progressives think it’s an egregious watering down of a host of essential priorities that they are almost insulted to have to support. Liberal wonks fret it’s become a leaky kitchen sink, with funding phase-outs, designed to game the CBO’s budget scoring, that make it be highly vulnerable to cancelation by a future Republican congress. Moderates largely agree, arguing in addition that some of its components were poorly designed from the beginning (the child care plan that at one point looked like it might wreck the day care market, for example). And then there was fear of inflation, which Manchin himself highlighted as a concern—particularly for something like the expanded child tax credit, which put money directly in people’s pockets and therefore would directly goose consumption. (Yes, the Fed can respond by raising rates more rapidly, but that means slowing the economy more quickly, which would normally be viewed as a negative.)
There’s plenty of other stuff that lots of folks agree is good, but that’s still a lot of agreement that big chunks of it are bad. So if it’s a bad bill, why isn’t Manchin right to kill it? Even if you’re unhappy that President Biden and Senate Majority Leader Schumer thereby have to suffer a loss; even if House moderates who reluctantly signed on now feel like they’ve been played for chumps; even if progressives are enraged, and feel like they should have held the bipartisan infrastructure bill hostage for longer—even if you’re pissed about the politics or convinced there was some way at some point in the past to force the thing over the line . . . doesn’t it matter if Manchin is right? Because if he is, then the people who should bear the lion’s share of the blame for it failing are those who teed up a lousy bill rather than the guy who killed it.
If you’re a progressive who thinks all of the ideas in the bill were good, and all were equally important, then by definition losing any one of them is no worse than losing any other one of them, and you can let political constraints determine what stays in and what drops out. In that case, the thing to do would be to sit down with Manchin and basically write the bill beside him. Manchin never liked the child tax credit expansion, largely because of the lack of a work requirement, but he was reportedly ready to support a decent, substantial bill—including climate spending—without the CTC expansion. If that’s true, and you really think everything was equally important, then you say yes, and you celebrate a historically gigantic victory even if it’s half the loaf you think the country really needs. If, on the other hand, you think the child tax credit really is the most important thing in the bill, and you know Manchin is a tough lift for that piece in particular, then you call up Mitt Romney right after the infrastructure bill passes and say: let’s write a child welfare bill together. Maybe it goes nowhere, but if it does then there never was anywhere for it to go in the first place. And if it does go somewhere, I’d be shocked if Manchin didn’t ultimately come on board for something constructed with Romney’s assistance, even if they started in different places in terms of their concerns (Romney’s original proposal was more effectively funded through other cuts, but did not impose a work requirement).
Legislation always gets hacked to bits and barnacled up with extraneous matter before it gets passed. That’s the nature of the process. But the relentless focus on the politics of this one suggests that a major reason for passing the bill had become simply the political necessity to pass it. Initiatives like that don’t generally pass, and shouldn’t.
Back to the drawing board.