The reaction was immediate and fierce. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), the chair of the Senate Budget Committee, blasted his more conservative colleague (but, to be fair, all 99 of Sanders’ colleagues are more conservative than he). Sanders told CNN’s Jake Tapper that if Manchin “doesn’t have the courage to do the right thing for the working families of West Virginia and America, let him vote no in front of the whole world.”
It appears Manchin is prepared to do just that. As a veteran of countless make-or-break moments on Capitol Hill and in the White House, I know that Biden and the Democrats have multiple paths forward.
First, I must note that this is not the biggest setback Joe Biden has faced in his life, and each time he has come back stronger. The political graveyards are filled with people who underestimated Joe Biden. Beneath the genial visage is a spine of steel. As Oliver Wendell Holmes said of his fellow Civil War veterans, Biden’s heart has been “touched with fire.” It will not break from this blow.
Perhaps Manchin is being tactical. Perhaps there is still some version of BBB he can support. If so, his support will brand the bill as moderate — with a capital M. Not the worst thing going into an election year in which moderate voters in swing districts will decide the outcome.
If, instead, Manchin has pulled the plug on Build Back Better, Biden still has several paths to success:
Piecemeal. The size and scope of BBB, which thrilled progressives, may have ultimately sunk it with Manchin. The White House website extolls the virtues of 22 different provisions in BBB. Twenty-two. Woodrow Wilson thought he could remake the world after World War I with just 14 points. And the Good Lord himself thought we could govern ourselves with 10. Biden could break BBB up into those 22 component parts and introduce them separately. Not all will pass, of course, especially since it will take 60 votes to break filibuster, while the BBB requires only 50 votes under reconciliation. Maybe none will, given some Democrats’ absurd fealty to the filibuster. But you never know.
When my old boss, Bill Clinton, crashed and burned in his attempt to pass national health care, the Comeback Kid came back with the Children’s Health Insurance Plan, tougher nursing home standards, expanded options for people with breast and cervical cancer, improved food safety, expanded childhood immunizations, a massive increase in medical research funding, and waged war on Big Tobacco. All of those were a far cry from universal health care, but they were progress, and Clinton is a progressive. Even if we fail, Clinton used to say to me, “there’s nothin’ wrong with getting caught tryin’.”
Executive Orders. President Barack Obama also came back after a massive setback — in his case, on immigration. He failed in his attempt to pass comprehensive immigration reform. Then he failed in his attempt to pass the DREAM Act, which would have legalized the status of those who had come to America without papers as young children. Democrats — on background, of course — excoriated Obama, telling Newsweek that Obama’s efforts on immigration were “a disaster.” “I campaigned for him,” one said. “I put my reputation on line. He either didn’t know what he was doing or he lied, because he has not done what he said he would do. I’m ashamed.” Undeterred by the friendly fire, Obama pressed on. In 2012 he signed an executive order known as DACA — Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. The order allowed young “Dreamers” to legally work in the United States and prohibited their deportation.
Take it to the Voters. The news, of course, is all about Manchin. But it is vital for Biden and the Democrats to explain to voters why Manchin has so much power: The reason Biden must get every single Democrat is that the GOP won’t let him get even a single Republican. How is it that out of 50 Republican senators not one is for a child tax credit — a middle-class tax cut to help families make ends meet? Not even one Republican is for making child care more affordable, or home care for your elderly parents and grandparents. Not even one Republican is for universal pre-K, or tax breaks for middle class families who want to buy an electric car or install solar panels on their roof. Not even one Republican is for negotiating for cheaper prescription drugs in Medicare, or for lower premiums under Obamacare, or for covering hearing aids under Medicare. Not even one Republican wants to expand a tax credit that rewards people who choose work over welfare — an idea that Ronald Reagan championed.
Not even one Republican is for more affordable housing, or better nutrition for children. Biden should tell his fellow Americans that he wouldn’t even need Joe Manchin if he could get a few Republicans to actually stand up for work, for middle-class tax cuts, for green jobs.
I believe the reason Biden and his fellow Democrats are in this position is because the Trumpist Republicans seem to lie awake at night, unable to sleep for the fear that somewhere, someone is living the American Dream.
Needless to say, none of these options is attractive. Each has a serious risk of failure. But with the planet warming and his party’s political prospects cooling; with COVID resurging and Trump resurfacing; with prices going up and polls going down, Biden’s only option is to get caught tryin’.