February 23, 2021 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

Does Biden have a Joe Manchin problem?

Not yet.

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Joe Biden and the Democratic Party do not have a Joe Manchin problem. Not yet anyway. But some leftists1 are already predicting the imminent fate of the president’s domestic agenda, which is to say, its doom. They point to Manchin’s comments about the minimum wage, the filibuster and, most recently, the nomination of Neera Tanden. They point to pretty much anything seeming to prove what they already believe to be true about the Democratic Party—that at some point it’s going to betray the left.2

That might happen. It’s not currently happening, though. What is happening is what you’d expect to see happen after a party wins a governing mandate.3 Pre-election, everyone left of center4 was focused on victory. Post-election, everyone’s jockeying, bargaining and figuring out ways to exploit opportunities. When Joe Manchin, the senior United States senator from West Virginia, says he’s does not support zapping the filibuster, does not support raising the minimum wage, and does not support the confirmation of Tanden to head the White House Office of Budget and Management, take it with a large grain of salt. Yes, he might mean it. As likely, though, he’s signalling the desire to be seen as the Joe No. 2 that Joe No. 1 has to go through.

The most important thing about the Joe Manchin-Joe Lieberman analog is not what it says about today’s politics. It’s what it says about the leftist view of today’s politics.

To be sure, leftists might be proven right over time in saying this looks just like the time Joe Lieberman put himself in a position to sabotage the antiwar effort before sabotaging the Affordable Care Act.5 But let’s keep our heads. One, Manchin is not Lieberman, the former United States senator from Connecticut. Two, 2021 is not 2009. (It sure as hell isn’t 2003.) Lieberman reflected at the time the center of the Democratic Party, which was at the time closer to the center of the GOP than their respective centers are now. While Manchin is today on the party’s margins, Lieberman is off the grid. But the important thing about the Manchin-Lieberman analog is not what it says about today’s politics. It’s what it says about the leftist view of today’s politics.

By that, I mean it’s stuck in the ’90s. President Bill Clinton merged Reaganism, and all that school of political thought was understood to mean in terms of socioeconomic policy, into the Democratic Party even as he won support of the party’s traditional interest groups. That combination pushed what had been the core of the Democratic Party—decades’ worth of New Deal, Great Society and social movement energies—to the margins, and that’s where it stayed all the way up to and including the election of the first Black president. Barack Obama’s eight years are probably best understood as a transition during which the old liberal democratic energies reasserted themselves before dominating the party during the white-backlash years of Donald Trump. Leftists6, however, aren’t adjusting. They see betrayal behind every bush and tree. They insist on betrayal even as other leftists, like Bernie Sanders, get on with business.

Here’s the tip jar!

Again, they might be proven right in time. But we should think about what counts as proof. It won’t be, in the case of Joe Manchin, his opposition to Neera Tandem, the head of the Center for American Progress. While she’d be very good at that job, and so far Biden is sticking with her7, any technocrat with the right skills could do it. More important than Tandem is Deb Haaland, who would be the first Indigenous American to head the Department of the Interior, including oversight of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. If Joe Manchin votes against her, then we might have a Joe Manchin problem. (Ditto if he gets in the way of the Democratic plans to reform the voting system.)

What about the filibuster? The question isn’t so much does Manchin want to preserve an arcane Senate rule. Instead, does he want to 1) keep the filibuster as means of dodging hard votes and/or 2) bring home the bacon to his constituents? Only Manchin can do that calculus, but the rest of us can rest assured he’ll send a message to a president ready to strike a deal whenever he’s ready. Same thing goes for the minimum wage. I have zero doubt Manchin would kill off a free-standing wage bill, but there’s less certainly with the president’s latest gambit of shoehorning it into the nearly $2 trillion covid relief package, which is popular in West Virginia, as everywhere else.

But even if that provision failed, there are other ways of raising wages—namely, trust-busting. Biden doesn’t need the Congress. All he needs to do is recognize the problem of accumulated private power bending the republic in the direction of fascism, and use existing law and statutory authority to smash monopolies into pieces, thus creating business entities forced to compete for workers by offering higher wages.8 It would be easier if Manchin and the rest of the Congress just played ball. My point, however, is that Manchin isn’t clearinghouse some of the far left are making him seem to be.

John Stoehr

1

I mean real leftists, not necessarily liberals or Democrats.

2

Again, I mean the real left, not necessarily liberals or Democrats.

3

Lots of Republicans continue to believe, or continue to say they believe, which is not the same thing as genuinely believing, the lie that Donald Trump was the legitimate winner.

4

Here, I mean everyone left of center—leftists, liberals and Democrats.

5

Lieberman famously supported the occupation of Iraq long after it was obviously turning into a quagmire. He also famously kneecapped Barack Obama’s proposed “public option.”

6

Again, the real ones.

7

CNN reports Shalanda Young, a Black technocrat, is a possible understudy.

8

This piece by Barry Lynn is required reading for fans of trust-busting.

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition open and available to all. Find him @johnastoehr.

10 Comments

  1. Bennett on July 30, 2021 at 11:38 pm

    Sadly, the problem with and for Neera Tanden is that she is not Vanita Gupta, another progressive who did not flame throw her opponents via Twitter. (Police unions even support Gupta’s nomination.)

    Tanden is a fine candidate. Yet even though the position is technocratic and much of the pushback has racist tinge (note the greater headwinds Biden’s POC selections have been running into), diplomacy counts, too. Also, it is worth noting that Manchin may be covering for Sanders, whom I’m not sure is so forgiving of some of the tweets that Tanden had directed his way.

    • jibal jibal on July 30, 2021 at 11:38 pm

      That’s ridiculous. Bernie’s not an idiot like Manchin.

  2. jibal jibal on July 30, 2021 at 11:38 pm

    Unlike your other columns, I don’t agree with a word of this. Talk about jockeying–this is nonsensical bashing of “the left”. There is clearly a Joe Manchin problem, and it isn’t just “the left” who has pointed out this obvious thing.

    • John Stoehr on July 30, 2021 at 11:38 pm

      If I were bashing the left, I’d never concede to the possibility of the left being right in time. I did, though.

      • jibal jibal on July 30, 2021 at 11:38 pm

        That does not follow logically, at all. But I won’t argue further–I know it’s a waste of time with you.

        • John Stoehr on July 30, 2021 at 11:38 pm

          Actually, it does follow logically.

  3. Caliban on July 30, 2021 at 11:38 pm

    I feel like manchin jockeying for power over Biden in this way is in itself a huge problem. While he alone probably can’t stop the progressive agenda there are a few others who will fall in his shadow. Machin rep represents the old guard of doing nothing, defecit hawking, and over concerned on decorum. Letting him get away with this power play is a huge mistake. The White House should immediately be holding his feet to the fire of his voters real wishes. They need a check, they want a 15 min wage. He’s already talking about looking into a lower min wage ffs. While I agree a lot of the left is jumping to the worst possible outcome make my words this only goes bad ways from here.

  4. dan tynan on July 30, 2021 at 11:38 pm

    I think Manchin is playing poker essentially. He has a bargaining chip, and he’s going to cash it in. The question is, what is the asking for? What does he want, and will Joe Biden give it to him?

  5. Joseph on July 30, 2021 at 11:38 pm

    Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema just killed the $15 minimum wage thing. Something needs to be done about Manchin and soon!

  6. Po on July 30, 2021 at 11:38 pm

    Who needs enemies with friends like Joe Manchin? Are we going to have a progressive agenda or will right wing pseudo-democrats like Manchin ruin it for us?

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