U.S. Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) provoked the full fury of the progressive left this weekend when he announced he was a “no” vote on President Biden’s Build Back Better (BBB) plan.
U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) called Manchin’s decision “an egregious breach of the trust of the president” and said it was time to “take the kid gloves off” to deal with Manchin’s insubordination. She added, “We have every right to be furious with Joe Manchin.”
U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) said Manchin didn’t have the “guts” to take on special interests and wasn’t listening to voters in his state.
Meanwhile, White House press secretary Jen Psaki released a condescending statement that suggests she is speaking on behalf of the progressive left more than her boss. With curiously selective memory, Psaki called Manchin’s decision “a sudden and inexplicable reversal in his position, and a breach of his commitments to the President and the Senator’s colleagues in the House and Senate.”
The blow up reminded me of an episode in 2012 when my former boss, the late U.S. Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) donated $250 to Manchin’s re-election campaign. Establishment Republicans were aghast that Coburn would flaunt partisan etiquette, but Coburn didn’t care. Coburn said, “I think he votes thinking about the long-term interests of the country. We don’t agree on everything but he’s a good guy.”
Manchin is the same person today he was in 2012. What has changed is not Manchin, but the party around him.
Instead of personally attacking Manchin, who has been detailing his concerns with BBB for months and expressing concern about debt and deficits for years, and then rationalizing their rage-based temper tantrum Democrats should consider a little self-reflection. The failure of BBB was a predictable outcome for a party that is unwilling to acknowledge its ideological excess and obliviousness to its political blind spots. If Democrats want to re-think their strategy and pursue durable bipartisan solutions, they should consider three steps.
Delink climate change from left-wing socialism
The Green New Deal isn’t a climate plan as much as it is a left-wing socialist manifesto. Progressive led by AOC have masterfully normalized a linkage between climate change and unrelated socialist goals like single-payer government-run health care, universal basic income, and universal pre-school. Yet, their strategy has come at a steep cost. Independent voters increasingly see Democrats as a party that has lost the plot. Just as Democrat and former Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe doesn’t believe parents should tell schools what they can teach, AOC doesn’t believe energy consumers should tell government regulators what they can buy.
In the real world, Democrats aren’t listening to climate scientists. Climate scientists are laughing at Democrats. Climate scientists are not asking policymakers to make climate action dependent on the enactment of unrelated socialist programs. When leading climate scientists like MIT’s Kerry Emanuel, who is not a partisan Republican or doctrinaire conservative, chuckle at left-wing climate dogma, Democrats have a problem. AOC, not Manchin, created this problem.
Reject Modern Monetary Theory (i.e. Sanders Economics)
Democrats aren’t just bad on climate science. They are terrible at math. Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), Sanders’ preferred economic framework, is an academic term for the fairytale notion that money can grow on trees. Free market economists would say wealth is what people are willing to pay for the creative output of others. MMT fans would say wealth is what governments are willing to borrow and print.
Among progressives, MMT has become a form of Western mysticism and neo-pagan economic theory that demands worship of the golden calf of government. Its adherents insist that if we’re only a little more fervent in our faith in command and control, centralized power, and money printing, we’ll all be equally rich. Manchin has long loathed this nonsense and rightfully discerned that the real-world consequence of this belief system isn’t wealth but inflation.
Celebrate rather than demonize innovators
U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren’s (D-MA) recent attack against Time magazine’s Person of the Year Elon Musk speaks volumes about why Manchin landed on “no” on BBB. Policymakers like Manchin, who celebrate clean energy innovation, simply aren’t welcome in a party that demonizes innovation.
Modern politics tends to favor ideological darlings like AOC, Sanders and Warren (i.e. politicians who want to represent the majority of a minority instead of building a majority) more than principled pragmatists like Manchin. Warren’s gratuitous class warfare and base pandering rhetoric was a crass fundraising appeal. Her decision to pick a fight with Musk and Time may help her pave the progressive lane during her next quixotic presidential run but it will not help Democrats grow their party or persuade Manchin to get to yes.
Moreover, independent voters are likely to conclude that Elon Musk knows how to spend Elon Musk’s money better than Elizabeth Warren knows how to spend Elon Musk’s money. That’s an argument Republicans can’t wait to have.
Yet, Republicans also have a choice. Rather than responding to left-wing overreach with under-reach, Republicans should respond with realistic and durable climate solutions that advance economic freedom. The best response to ideological hubris is policy humility that understands that durable solutions and breakthroughs are going to come from labs more than legislatures. That sounds like a party someone like Manchin might be willing to join, or at least visit.