It is easy to believe that Joe Manchin is bought and paid for by the coal industry. It is easy to believe that he is, in essence, a Republican, attached by only the slimmest thread to the Democratic Party, which grants him an extraordinary amount of structural power in this time. It is easy to believe that he is a rich jerk who pats himself on the back for living on a yacht while his constituents suffer in poverty. Indeed, not believing any of those things would be unrealistic. The question now, though, boils down to: Is Joe Manchin a real live sociopath?
When Manchin announced his firm opposition to the Build Back Better (BBB) bill this weekend on Fox News, he mumbled a string of justifications so incoherent that I suspect he wasn’t really trying very hard. “The inflation that I was concerned about, it’s not transitory, it’s real, it’s harming every West Virginian… And you start looking at — then you have the debt that we’re carrying, $29 trillion, you have also the geopolitical unrest that we have,” he said. “You have the Covid — the Covid variant, and that is wreaking havoc again… if I can’t go home and explain it to the people of West Virginia, I can’t vote for it. And I cannot vote to continue with this piece of legislation. I just can’t.”
“We have many different problems, and therefore I will not support a bill that might help to solve them,” he might as well have said. Or, being more candid, “My concern for ‘the people of West Virginia’ extends only to the people who own coal mines.” Subsidizing social goods for needy people is unlikely to fuel rampant inflation. Geopolitical unrest has little to do with the BBB bill, except that the bill might help reduce it by making America itself less prone to social unrest. And the bill’s social spending would certainly help those who have been made needy by the pandemic. Manchin reportedly told colleagues that he suspected poor people would spend subsidy payments on drugs, a canard so old and dreary and disproven that it is difficult to imagine that anyone with access to economic research would actually buy it. So what is Manchin’s deal? Is he a shrewd negotiator, a dumbass, or a monster?
The most logical, if cold-blooded, explanation is that he simply has a good understanding of his leverage here. Democrats need his vote. For as much as the party has been trying to move him on the bill, he doesn’t have to move. Declaring his opposition to the bill can be a way of ending the game of chicken. For months, it has been reported that Manchin was comfortable with a bill in the $1.5 trillion range — so this could all be a way of ending the haggling with the White House over the last half-trillion or so. If the choice is between no bill and an inadequate, Manchin-approved bill, the rational outcome would be to simply hand Manchin a pen and have him write down what he will vote for, and then put only those things in the bill. With the clock likely ticking on Democrats’ control of Congress, and with Manchin having no fear of attacks from his left, this would be an effective way for him to wrestle absolute control of the bill away from his clamoring colleagues and make it exactly what he wants.
And so, if you assume that Joe Manchin is a rational politician, that is what will happen now: the Build Back Better bill will end up being just another “better than nothing” bill that does a little good but not a lot, perhaps with a few million bucks to build grand statues of Joe Manchin thrown in. Close, but no cigar, on transformational change, my fellow Democrats — come back again in a decade or so when you have a bigger majority in Congress, if our democracy survives that long.
But Manchin’s behavior has been strange enough to make another, darker possibility seem increasingly likely. The Hill reported that Manchin was engaged in negotiations until a White House statement last week mentioned his name in what he perceived to be a rude manner, thereby offending his sense of “civility.” And in a radio interview on Monday, Manchin said that he decided to oppose the bill after members of the White House staff did unnamed things that offended him. This would imply that Manchin is, in fact, a man self-centered enough to place his own ego over the needs of 300 million people — a man who believes that it is more important that everyone in D.C. scrape and bow to him than it is to, for example, help prevent children from starving. This sort of politician is infinitely scarier than one who simply has bad beliefs. This is the sort of person unable to conceptualize the existence of a public good. It is someone who engages in politics not as a public servant, or even as a servant of special interests, but as a king, who demands to be served above all. It is, put more bleakly, a moral monster.
Progressives in Congress seem to be drawing this conclusion about Manchin, talking more about executive actions than they are about renegotiating the BBB bill. Letting Manchin dictate the final terms of the bill is now the plainly rational course — unless he is just going to continue dragging his feet and kill it once again months from now, when time is even shorter. That would, of course, be a monstrous thing to do. But it also seems like the sort of thing that someone who believes civility is more important than the needs of dying coal miners just might do. If everyone wants to yell at him, Joe Manchin will be happy to retreat to his yacht in peace.
Hamilton Nolan is a labor writer for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. You can reach him at Hamilton@InTheseTimes.com.