Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia is taking heat for sinking, at least for the moment, the Biden administration’s Build Back Better Act. But before pointing fingers, Democrats should use those fingers to count votes.
The past may cast some light on the politics of narrow majorities. Republicans had a bad election in 2000. They lost two seats in the House, reducing their majority in that chamber to a precarious three votes. Republicans lost four seats in the Senate, resulting in a 50–50 tie. Vice President Dick Cheney was the tie-breaking vote in the Senate, just as Vice President Kamala Harris is now. And, of course, George W. Bush entered the presidency under the cloud of the Florida recount, having lost the national popular vote to Al Gore.
This outcome severely limited the new President Bush’s governing options, especially before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, reshaped U.S. politics. Bush shrank his legislative agenda to two broadly popular items: first, a tax cut that passed the House with 230 votes and the Senate with 58; then an education bill that passed early in 2002 with 381 votes in the House and 87 in the Senate.
Like Biden’s ambitions, the Bush administration’s first-year agenda was beholden to the least reliable members of the president’s party in the Senate. In 2001, those were Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island and James Jeffords of Vermont. Jeffords would switch parties in 2001, tipping the partisan balance of the Senate. The whims and vagaries of those two officeholders transfixed and baffled the Bush White House just as the moods and caprices of Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema transfix and baffle the Biden White House now.
Bush took office at a more placid time than Biden did. He arrived with a less ambitious legislative agenda too. But if the times have changed, the grammar of power has not.
“When I cannot get a dinner to suit my taste, I endeavor to get a taste to suit my dinner.” That was Washington Irving’s advice to travelers. It’s good advice for politicians too.
Relative to its strength in Congress, the Biden administration has proved outstandingly successful. In 11 months, Biden has done more with 50 Democratic senators than Barack Obama did with 57. He signed a $1.9 trillion COVID-relief bill in March 2021: $1,400-per-person direct payments, $350 billion in aid to state and local governments, an extension of supplemental unemployment-insurance benefits and subsidies under the Affordable Care Act. He signed a $1 trillion infrastructure bill in November. He signed some 75 executive orders, many of them advancing liberal immigration goals. He’s also won confirmation for some 40 federal judges, more than any first-year president since Ronald Reagan, and twice as many as Donald Trump confirmed in his first year with a 54-vote Senate majority.
But sooner or later, Biden was bound to bump into congressional constraints.
Indeed, from a progressive point of view, it’s a miracle that he did not bump into those constraints even sooner than he did. Had Trump accepted defeat in November with any kind of grace or decency, Republicans would surely have held at least one of the two Georgia Senate seats, and President Biden would have had to negotiate his agenda past Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
It’s bad psychology and worse political science to use electoral outcomes to make grand pronouncements about public opinion. But if we should be very careful in our statements about what voters wanted, we can easily see what the electoral system delivered. That system delivered a decisive repudiation of the Trump presidency in the presidential election in November, then a repudiation of the Trump post-presidency in Georgia in January. Beyond that, however, the system did not deliver the opportunity for progressive change that it delivered in 2008, let alone in 1964 or 1932.
Instead of fulminating against Manchin for calling quits when he did, Democrats might want to reflect on how much of their agenda got enacted only thanks to the team spirit of a senator from a state that Trump won in 2020 by 39 points.
Anybody can win a poker game with a good hand. It takes a real maestro to play a bad one.
Biden won a bigger pool with worse cards than any Democratic president ever. He won that pool because Manchin gave Biden more loyalty under more adverse conditions than the moderate Democrats of 2009 gave to President Obama.
Perhaps it’s not the nature of Democrats to appreciate the glass half full. But half full it is.
The Democrats have a year remaining in the present Congress. That’s too little time to waste on recrimination, but time enough to secure voting rights, to accelerate the shift to carbon-zero fuels, and to complete and publish the investigation into the attack on Congress on January 6, 2021. A rebuff is not a retreat. It’s a sign to proceed in a different direction.