AP: Dems starting to worry that McConnell and Manchin seem awfully friendly these days

Wouldn’t it be ironic if Mitch McConnell actually ended up gaining a vote for leadership rather than losing any? As Democrats lick their wounds from several self-inflicted humiliations related to their months-long reconciliation project, the search for scapegoats begins and ends with Joe Manchin. And now the chatter around the Capitol Hill water cooler has focused on the sudden chumminess between Manchin and McConnell, reports the AP, and what that might mean:

Failing to deliver on Biden’s roughly $2 trillion social and environmental bill would be a stunning end to the president’s first year in office.

Manchin’s actions throw Democrats into turmoil at time when families are struggling against the prolonged COVID-19 crisis and Biden’s party needs to convince voters heading toward the 2022 election that their unified party control of Washington can keep its campaign promises.

The White House has insisted Manchin is dealing with the administration in “good faith,” according to deputy White House press secretary Andrew Bates.

Manchin, though, has emerged as an uneven negotiator — bending norms and straining relationships because he says one thing one day and another the next, adjusting his positions, demands and rationale along the way.

Democratic senators have grown weary of their colleague, whose vote they cannot live without — but whose regular chats with Republican leader Mitch McConnell leave them concerned he could switch parties and take away their slim hold on power.

That at least is a more honest framing than the AP’s headline (repeated by ABC), which blames Manchin for derailing “an entire presidential agenda.” Did someone at the AP forget how to do math?

The failure of the BBB isn’t Manchin’s; it’s the fault of progressives who insisted on an all-in bill with costs hidden by obvious budget gimmicks. Manchin has been clear for months that he wouldn’t play along with that deceit, and that he wanted a much more focused and less costly bill that dealt directly with household economics. That approach might have even wooed a few Republicans, although it clearly wouldn’t have enamored progressives in the Democratic caucus. Regardless, it’s not at all clear that Manchin was a “single senator” in his opposition to the BBB, and he certainly wasn’t the cause of its demise.

If Manchin switched parties, however, that would derail Joe Biden’s agenda for the rest of this session of Congress. It would make Mitch McConnell the Senate Majority Leader again, force Biden to negotiate on both legislation and presidential appointments, and put a decisive end to the progressive project under Biden. That failure could potentially lead to massive progressive disillusionment in the midterms too, amplifying the losses Democrats expect to take already and perhaps put the GOP in even better shape in the Senate in 2023-24.

But will Manchin really flip? McConnell doesn’t mind rattling Democrats over it:

“I want to commend Senator Sinema and Senator Manchin for having some respect for the institution,” McConnell said of the Senate and the filibuster. “I would remind all of you, President Trump repeatedly suggested or insisted that I lead the charge to change the filibuster rule, I had a one-word answer, no. Changing the structure of the Senate in order to try to achieve a partisan advantage is a mistake for the Senate and a mistake for the country.”

“Have you ever asked him to join your party this year?” a reporter asked.

“He likes to talk to everybody,” McConnell said. “I enjoy our conversations. It would not surprise you to know that I have suggested for years it would be a great idea, representing a deep red state like West Virginia, for him to come over to our side. I don’t think that’s going to happen but he would be the best one to answer that question. We do enjoy a cordial relationship and we do appreciate the fact that he seems to be one of the few remaining centrists left in the Democratic party. I don’t know if any of you were here in the Obama years, we had way more moderate Democrats when Barack Obama was president than we do today. They seem to have all gone hard left. Joe has resisted that and I admire him for it.”

The personal political benefits for Manchin in switching to the GOP are so obvious that they tend to debunk the idea that he’d flip, simply because Manchin has never acted to gain those benefits. Clearly his state has become entirely hostile to Democrats; Biden didn’t carry a single county last year, and Manchin’s the only Democrat elected in West Virginia by statewide vote. He barely won his last election against AG Patrick Morrisey in a three-way race, and failed to get to 50%. If Manchin flipped to the GOP, he’d probably own that seat for the rest of his life — but that’s been obvious ever since his close shave in 2018. If Manchin was inclined to flip, he would have done so by now, right?

Well, maybe. First, Democrats might have reason to worry about Manchin’s chumminess with McConnell, which appears to be pretty recent. Until lately the two were not hostile but rather more distant. Now that they’re getting closer on a personal basis (reportedly), McConnell’s recruitment might carry more weight. Also, the full-court press by progressives to demonize Manchin over his opposition to their agenda — at one point Cori Bush accused him of being a racist — might have Manchin wondering what point it serves to caucus with Democrats.

If he’s not inclined to switch, it might be because he sees value in continuing in the role that McConnell highlighted yesterday as the Senate’s sole remaining moderate Democrat, or at least its most public one. And McConnell might prefer to keep Manchin where he is now too, as it allows McConnell to influence the direction of the Senate without any of the responsibilities of having a one-seat majority while Democrats control the House and White House. If Manchin’s willing to block radical nominees and legislation, that’s all McConnell really needs.