I confess that I have completely given up on making sense of what is going on on Capitol Hill right now. Is there going to be a reconciliation bill? Is the BIF going to pass? I have no idea on either. I also have no clue about the continuing appearance of a lack of urgency. A few days ago Rep. Jayapal said there’s nothing set in stone about the October 31st deadline. And just yesterday Joe Manchin said it didn’t seem at all realistic that anything would be done by then. That is, to put it mildly, deeply unfortunate because the public is drifting away from the President and his party in significant part because they cannot seem to act on the agenda they say is so important. They are also sowing a creeping disillusionment and demoralization among their own partisans. This is fundamentally the fault of Democratic voters who missed the chance to elect two to four more senators last November. But the problem is Joe Biden’s to solve.
The most logical explanation of all of this is pretty straightforward: the two conservative Democratic holdouts in the Senate not only won’t agree to the full proposal, they won’t even get down to discussing what they will agree to. Or they will talk about one or two parts but not the whole thing. And then shift on those they have talked about. Manchin seems to throw out new red lines by the day and in most cases these seem if not surprises to his colleagues then the first they’ve heard about them.
I don’t know how much impact it has had but one of the most consistent features of this whole saga is how the highly influential insider newsletter publications – Politico, Axios, Punchbowl et al. have become what amounts to a cheering section for the two holdouts. A couple weeks ago Axios published one of these encomiums about Kyrsten Sinema (“Cracking the Sinema Code“) and this morning Punchbowl put out a similar piece which amounted to a Manchin manifesto. “Try believing Joe Manchin” runs the headline and proceeds to explain that no one can have any beefs with Manchin since he has been consistent about what he will and won’t accept from the git-go.
Some of this is a product of sourcing. Manchin especially is essentially negotiating through these publications and you cheer the source. They are the ones taking action, forcing others to react to them. That’s what protagonists do in any story. But it’s a bit deeper than that and rooted in the DC insider culture.
The more or less open cheerleading for this duo is so enthusiastic it almost starts to seem like part of the background noise of the moment – so obvious and so taken for granted that it starts to seem unremarkable. The truth is that Manchin doesn’t need to be consistent. He’s got the vote and the Democrats need that vote. And that’s really all that matters. But it’s silly to pretend he’s been clear from the beginning. What is actually most consistent about Manchin has been the fluidity and imprecision of his positions. He was diehard for the filibuster. Then he thought it needed to be reformed. Then he was back to diehard. He thought linkage was the only way forward. Later he said he’d never heard of it. First $4 trillion and then $1.5 trillion.
As I said, Manchin isn’t under any obligation to be consistent. But it’s worth being clear about who he is. He’s an old school transactional politician, who’s not at all a policy guy and who loves being the center of attention and in front of the camera. He’s also deeply inside the DC world of lobbyists and elite reporters and other old school pols. I’ve said before that the best way to make sense of all Manchin’s shifting and seemingly contradictory statements is that he’s simply reacting to the situational questions of the moment, saying what comes to mind when he rolls out of bed. It doesn’t need to be consistent any more than you need to be in the same mood each day. But when policy isn’t your thing and you approach things in situational terms, that makes you very responsive to the mood and conventional wisdom of the subculture you inhabit. And here is where I think we get to what’s up here. Manchin has become increasingly vocal and resistant to Biden’s agenda pretty much from the point when Biden’s popularity began to sag in July and August. And probably nowhere is this more the case than in the mix of elite DC journalists, pols and lobbyists who seem to define Manchin’s world. He’s reacting to Biden’s weakness and in so doing driving it.
And that is where we are.