Senate Dems fret: How do you solve a problem like Joe Manchin?

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

A better question might be: How do you hold a midterm wave upon the sand? The Hill is alive with Senate Democrats’ frustration over Joe Manchin, whose demand for bipartisanship keeps ruining their efforts to shove a progressive agenda down the throats of Republicans. Trying to return to engagement and regular order are a few of Manchin’s favorite things, perhaps especially when looking at next year’s elections:

Senate Democrats have been left confused and befuddled by Sen. Joe Manchin, and say they’re trying to figure out what their West Virginia colleague is thinking with his most recent moves in bucking his party.

Especially perplexing to Democratic senators is Manchin’s opposition to a sweeping election reform bill intended to protect voting rights. He supported what was largely the same legislation, and served as a co-sponsor to the bill, introduced in the previous Congress by Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and former Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.).

“If you can figure out what Joe Manchin is about, let me know because I can’t,” said a Democratic senator who requested anonymity to comment frankly on his colleague. “I’m mystified.”

What’s there to be mystified about? Democrats complain that Manchin’s opposing their For The People Act, their version of vote-system overhaul that never had a prayer of getting through the Senate. They claim that Manchin co-sponsored essentially the same bill last year, and that the only differences are “tweaks,” but The Hill doesn’t specify the changes — and neither do Senate Democrats.

Besides, the context could hardly be any more different. Last year’s bill was a minority proposal offered under a president of the opposite party. It was purely performative, a symbolic effort designed for fundraising. Everyone understood that proposal would go nowhere, Manchin as well as everyone else. It seems pretty strange for Manchin’s colleagues to blame Manchin for changing his mind now that Democrats have nominal control, simply for loyally supporting this PR move in the last session of Congress against his political interests in West Virginia.

It’s clear what Manchin wants — he wants Democrats to stop pushing pre-written performance art and instead get back to regular order for developing legislation. Republicans were guilty of this as well, but Manchin’s not a Republican and the responsibility is leadership’s, which is now Democratic in both chambers. Instead, it appears that Democrats will double down on majoritarian efforts rather than engage:

Senate Democrats, growing impatient as they watch their ambitious agenda imperiled in the evenly divided chamber, are prepared to go it alone on President Joe Biden’s sweeping infrastructure package — and pressure Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema into backing a Democratic-only approach. …

But after Sinema left the meeting, one Democrat after another teed off on the strategy and expressed deep frustration at what they viewed as a fruitless effort to find consensus with Senate Republicans — worried that any bipartisan deal would unlikely win the support of many in their caucus, reflecting the growing tension between the progressive and moderate wings of the party.

“There is no way Manchin and Sinema are going to cut a deal that represents the view of the caucus,” said one Democratic senator. “It’s just not going to happen.”

Another Democratic senator added, “A group of four or five people don’t get to carry 50 Democratic votes on their back.”

This is absurd. Manchin and Sinema are part of that 50, and 50 isn’t enough anyway for what Democrats want to do. They’re setting themselves up for failure, and what’s worse, they are deliberately seeking performative failure to push a radical agenda of eliminating the filibuster for legislation. They can’t succeed, and they know they can’t succeed, but they’d rather fail and proclaim their victimhood than engage and actually get something done.

That’s what is mystifying about this, but the impact won’t be mystifying. Democrats will face a midterm buzzsaw if they can’t show any evidence of governing success, especially in the suburban districts they need to hold the House — and possibly the Senate too, even with the math in their favor. Manchin can see the writing on the wall, and he has to be wondering why his colleagues are proving themselves illiterate. Right now, it must look to Manchin like there’s no way to stop it.