Joe Manchin Is Doing What He Came For

Don’t be surprised when centrist legislators throw wrenches into big party initiatives: in an era of bitter polarization, that is exactly what keeps them in office.

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Evan Wagner

On Monday, November 1st, two very important Joes delivered two very different speeches.

In remarks to fellow world leaders at their 26th annual climate change pow-wow, President Joe Biden let his rhetoric soar as he implored them to unite behind concrete plans to eliminate their emissions by 2050. Apologizing for his predecessor’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris Climate Accords, Biden vowed that his leadership would bring back the stable international promises of the past. He promised the ambitious domestic climate plan would soon pass with the rest of congressional Democrats’ now-$1.75 trillion budget reconciliation omnibus. America was “not only back at the table,” he declared, “but hopefully leading by the power of our example.”

Back home, Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) was frank as he gave reporters his latest thoughts on the reconciliation bill, which sounded a lot like his earliest thoughts. Admonishing progressives for holding the bipartisan infrastructure bill hostage, Manchin vowed not to cave to such pressure from his fellow Democrats. He insisted that his position had not changed: he would not accept a bill that would “irresponsibly add to our $29 trillion national debt.” He lectured his colleagues for playing political games while ignoring public concerns about runaway inflation. Yet, in a familiar move, Manchin did not give up on the bill entirely, insisting that “this all can be done” so long as he is given more time and “greater clarity” about what would be in the bill.

Machin’s requests for time and clarity are hard to take seriously. Democrats began discussing plans for this bill over a year ago, after the Georgia runoffs handed them a bare majority in the Senate. Recognizing that Manchin and Senator Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) wield two of the necessary 50 votes to pass a budget reconciliation bill, party leaders have repeatedly invited the pair to tell them exactly what they want it to say. Each time a plan is presented, rather than providing a clear blessing or flat rejection, Manchin and Sinema have shot down its specifics without providing their own, forcing their party colleagues to rethink and repackage the bill according to some fresh guess at their preferences.

Obstructionist showmanship is hardly a new phenomenon in American politics. Recent years have seen plenty of “mavericks” stymie the will of party leaders in dramatic fashion. An ad for his first Senate campaign in 2010 shows Manchin literally shooting down a cap-and-trade bill promoted by his own party’s leader, then-President Barack Obama. John McCain gave Republican leadership hell when his iconic thumbs-down killed their attempt to repeal Obamacare, inspiring Sinema, his successor, to vote against a $15 minimum wage in similar fashion. And now that House progressives have caved and passed the bipartisan infrastructure bill, expect Manchin and Sinema to twiddle their thumbs a while longer before gutting the reconciliation bill or turning it down entirely.

What explains this behavior from centrist legislators? Some spectators rightly point to the simple but powerful influence of money. It is no secret that Manchin holds multiple financial stakes in the success of the coal industry, which stands to lose out heavily with the passage of any substantive climate change prevention policy. Sinema has obstructed votes on the larger package while fundraising flagrantly from businesses who oppose it. In an electoral system which tacitly permits tit-for-tat donor relationships, most politicians see no reason to pass up easy opportunities to collect campaign funds and secure a comfortable lobbying job when they quit Congress or are voted out.

But while dark money is an attractively simple bogeyman, it falls short of explaining why these legislators choose to stall negotiations on this bill rather than end them quickly. The attention-seeking element can be explained by a steady rise in the partisan polarization of American politics over the past half-century. Today’s deep divide between Democrats and Republicans creates a playing field in which Manchin, Sinema, and their fellow mavericks are incentivized not only to buck their party’s agenda with every opportunity they get, but to drag out the process and attract plenty of attention throughout.

In 1974, David Mayhew identified two key strategies in the playbook of American legislative politics. A politician seeks both to claim credit for laws which benefit voters and to take positions that play well with voters. Mayhew’s theory suggests that moderate members in particular will often face tradeoffs between credit-claiming and position-taking. In order to bring benefits to their constituents, they must collaborate with a majority whose ideological positions are often more extreme than those of their voters. In order to maintain the right stance, they might have to vote against their party’s agenda and come home empty-handed.

Congress today is divided by the slimmest of margins, but why do its moderates buck their party leaders so frequently? Past closely-contested Congresses were able to pass major bills whenever their centermost members chose credit-claiming over position-taking, content to graft pork for their districts onto a party bill without fearing backlash over the rest of its contents. Polarization has since made the backlash dwarf the gratitude. Position-taking has few downsides, while credit-claiming is riskier than ever. The center has lost its incentive to help bills past the finish line, grinding the gears of Congress to a halt.

American partisanship begets a position-taking, gridlocked Congress because it is based on negative emotions. Partly due to the rise of partisan media, the image of the “other side” in the heads of most voters is much more ideologically extreme than a typical member of the other party truly is. While Americans tend to have lukewarm opinions about their own party, they harbor strong negative feelings against the other. As a result, policy victories do little to mobilize voters. The bigger motivation to head to the ballot box is fear of what the other side will do with the powers of government if they control it.

Partisan acrimony has made anti-government sentiment one of the most powerful forces in American politics. Many swing-state members of Congress rely on a large bloc of independents who elect politicians based on how many wrenches they promise to throw in the gears of government. As a Democrat in ruby-red West Virginia, Manchin survives by maintaining the perception that he will stick it to whomever controls D.C., whether their necktie is red or blue. It seems his constituents send him to the Senate just to not care about his job. A relative newcomer, Sinema has supplemented her ‘no’ votes with tradition-trampling fashion choices to establish her own maverick image.

Consider the reconciliation bill from Manchin’s perspective, and his choices are entirely rational. Sure, enacting a giant, FDR-style agenda might give all Democrats a boost with voters, himself included. But Manchin is more certain that playing the obstructionist will pay off with West Virginia voters, as it has every other time. What’s more, he can dither endlessly on the reconciliation bill to keep that position in the spotlight, dangling Democratic priorities in front of party leadership before yanking them away.

More than a nuisance of domestic politics, American maverick culture has international consequences. In this case, Manchin’s obstruction of the reconciliation bill has left Biden empty-handed in Glasgow and cast a gloomy pall over COP26 proceedings. The U.S. cannot be a decisive climate leader on the world stage while its legislature remains gridlocked by position-taking moderates.

Anybody who wishes to see the climate crisis resolved should not accept this state of affairs. However, focusing anger on Manchin accomplishes little more than helping him win reelection. The electoral incentive structure which rewards his actions must be replaced with one that encourages, or at least allows, productivity.

While that is no simple task, some people have much more influence over the status quo than the rest. Mainstream politicians should work to restore the trust in government they have allowed to erode, even when that entails taking risks and passing untested social policies. Progressive politicians should follow Elizabeth Warren’s lead and prioritize forming a coalition around campaign finance reform, recognizing that their other priorities will be taken hostage until electoral politics work differently. Media magnates should restructure their revenue schemes to stop pouring gasoline on negative polarization. And everyone should make real efforts to connect positively with their fellow Americans who vote across the aisle.⬩

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