Washington,DC USA - November 4 2021: Senator Joe Manchin is confronted by climate activists leaving his boat on his way to Capitol Hill

Senator Joe Manchin is confronted by climate activists leaving his boat on his way to Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C., on November 4, 2021. Image credit: Rachael Warriner/Shutterstock.

West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin said on December 19 that he opposes the Build Back Better bill, the second of two infrastructure packages the Democrats have been negotiating for months. (The first one, focused on “traditional” infrastructure, was enacted last month.) 

The news is moving fast. Negotiations appear to be ongoing. To get a better idea of what’s going on, I talked to Monique Judge. She was until recently the news editor for The Root. I asked Monique if Manchin’s surprise announcement made any sense, politically or practically. 

Monique Judge [MJ]: I think on some level, it was expected that Manchin would pull a stunt like this. When questioned about why he did it, his answers didn’t make sense. He said he was at his “wit’s end” but when asked to elaborate, his responses were a “they know what they did” kind of thing. NBC News asked if he felt there was still a place for him in the Democratic party. His response: “I would like to hope there are still Democrats who think like I do. I’m fiscally responsible and socially compassionate. Now, if there are no Democrats like that, then they’ll have to push me where they want me.” LOL. Bye, Joe.

John Stoehr [JS]: Rachel Bitecofer, the political scientist, told me this about his opposition this morning: “It makes perfect sense to Manchin, who is the last Democrat serving in a realigning West Virginia, which broke for Donald Trump by 35 points in 2020. Manchin will need to win 20 points’ worth of Republican voters to hold his seat in 2024 in a presidential election cycle. That is pretty hard.” Thoughts?

MJ: If that’s the case, Manchin is playing a very long game that may not yield the results he’s looking for. And then what? Siding with the GOP is one thing, but attempting to manipulate the people through political machinations leaves a sour taste in people’s mouths. After the win, then what? You begin supporting Democratic legislation again? Even with that being a reason, it still is hard to make sense of it.

JS: In your view, does Manchin want a deal at all?

MJ: It’s hard to say. It was reported that he went to Biden last week with an outline of his own, which the press secretary said mirrored a lot of the president’s plan. If he went to the trouble to create that, you’d think he would follow through. If there are major parts he disagrees with, he could state those plainly and have an alternative solution. At the end of the day, the work still needed to get done. He didn’t do that. This is some sort of weird power play. It’s hard to say where he is going with it or if he wants to get the work done.

JS: Schumer vows to bring a vote early next month. The idea is showing Manchin Republicans aren’t going to show up the way Manchin says they will show up. If that doesn’t work, should Democrats whittle down the BBB even more to satisfy him?

MJ: First of all, Congress needs to stop playing these petty-ass games of one upmanship. It’s all ego. It’s not doing anything to help the millions suffering. Enough is enough already with that bullshit. 

Second, absolutely not. The bill was already missing major parts that could help, including student loan debt relief—which a lot of people are still calling for. Whittling it down even more would render it almost useless as far as providing relief to Americans struggling and suffering. 

JS: There’s an assumption that passing something, anything, is better than passing nothing. That presumes something else: that this legislation is a winner for the Democrats in next year’s midterms.

MJ: I don’t know if this is a winner. If anything, I think it could make it harder for some Democrats, because their constituents will see them as not having fought hard enough for the right things. And I don’t know if passing “something” is better than passing “nothing.” What is “something” doesn’t help the people? Is that a good thing?

JS: I’m not sure policy is going to reach swing voters the way some moderate Democrats say it’s going to reach swing voters.

MJ: Republicans do whatever they can to sabotage Democratic stuff. They do anything to push their agendas. Democrats seem to want to simultaneously “play nice” and also wag their fingers at naughty Republicans. If Democrats played the game the same way, they could probably get some gains. The time for turning the other cheek is over. It only gets your ass kicked. There is no “fair” when lives are at stake.

JS: My thinking is that Biden needs to get more strident. 

MJ: I would agree. He’s the president after all. He needs to pull his presidential boxers up and start being more resolute with everyone, Democrats included. For Manchin’s part, he needs to do what he was elected to do: put the needs of the American people before his own.

JS: What could Biden say that would make you cheer?

MJ: He could say he wants to relieve student debt. He could say he wants to uplift the poorer classes. He could say he’s determined to dismantle the carceral system and come up with alternatives to reduce the disproportionate impact on communities of color. He could say he stands behind the federal decriminalization of cannabis.

JS: What’s your sense of hope for the future right now? One to 10?

MJ: It’s a three. We’re doomed.

The climate is destroyed. Our economy is unbalanced. People can’t afford basic needs. No one seems to want to do anything about it. We have billionaires spending their money going to the front porch of space (not actual space, mind you) instead of giving back to the communities that help keep their bloated businesses afloat. We have a global pandemic that doesn’t seem to be going away soon. It has turned us all into one gigantic human science experiment. We are literally waiting to find out which petri dish we are on. Scary times.

JS: Do you have any hope that the Democrats will find courage?

MJ: Only with new blood. The old-timers who don’t seem to want to retire are stifling progress, I think. Again, they want to play things “fair” and “by the rules” when we have now entered the Hunger Games-era of US history. The rules don’t apply. We read the book. We saw the movie. But we didn’t think it could happen to us. Now here we are.

JS: Monique, many thanks for chatting with me today.

MJ: Thank you for asking me!

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition open and available to all. Find him @johnastoehr. This essay first appeared in the Editorial Board on December 20, 2021.