Joe Manchin, DC Insider Culture and the Long Derply Hand of Mark Penn

at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on April 28, 2019 in Beverly Hills, California.
BEVERLY HILLS, CALIFORNIA - APRIL 29: Mark Penn participates in a panel discussion during the annual Milken Institute Global Conference at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on April 29, 2019 in Beverly Hills, California. (Ph... BEVERLY HILLS, CALIFORNIA - APRIL 29: Mark Penn participates in a panel discussion during the annual Milken Institute Global Conference at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on April 29, 2019 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Michael Kovac/Getty Images) MORE LESS

In yesterday’s episode of the podcast Kate Riga and I were trying to make sense of Joe Manchin’s various feints and positions and un-positions over the last eight months. It’s sort of a parlor game to try to make sense of the motives of people you disagree with or frustrate you. Maybe it’s not that complicated? Maybe the reason they keep doing X is because they want to do X. The fact that you don’t like X doesn’t make it that hard to understand.

Yet there’s something a bit more to it with Manchin. His notional arguments for the ‘strategic pause’ on the President’s agenda doesn’t really add up. He says we need to worry about ‘runaway inflation’ when inflation is lower than it was in the 80s after Paul Volcker had tamed it. He says we need to keep our powder dry in case COVID gets worse and we need more massive relief packages. But actually what’s being discussed is spending over ten years. If COVID turns out to be catastrophically different in a year we could just change the plan. Even diehard inflation hawks like Larry Summers don’t think the spending over a decade is an issue on this front. And none of these things are really different than 6 or 7 weeks ago when Manchin gave all signs that he was at least broadly on board, subject to some hacks and shaves, with the $3.5 trillion package.

It’s a bit reminiscent of what we saw this Spring. Kate brought up that at the beginning Manchin said that his one priority was ensuring Biden had a successful presidency. Now he’s decided it would be a good idea to light Biden’s whole presidency on fire. Manchin was dead set against ending or reforming the filibuster. Then he started saying we’d made the filibuster too easy. And since it’s been abused for being too easy we needed to make it harder. Then he went back to saying the filibuster was awesome. And here we are.

So we have all these theories: Manchin is a crypto-Republican; he’s doing the work of his funders; he and Biden have a secret understanding and it’s all going to work out. My own theory is a bit different. It’s not even my theory. Someone mentioned it to me several months ago. But I can’t remember who. The theory is this: all of Manchin’s actions hold together and make sense if you imagine he got up on a particular day, absorbed the CW of the moment and said the first or second thing that came into his head.

This is admittedly a somewhat diminishing read. But Manchin clearly likes the limelight and he doesn’t pretend to be an ideologue. If you use this framework all the various shifts and turns start to make sense. Manchin is the quintessential Washington player, very much a creature of Washington insider culture with all its shibboleths and conventional wisdoms.

All of which brings me to this “exclusive” poll published this morning by Axios. The poll was commissioned by No Labels, the pro-‘centrist’ outfit which actually functions as the family PAC of Mark Penn, onetime Clinton pollsters and general TPM nemesis. No Labels was founded and run by Penn’s wife, Nancy Jacobson, and works to support Penn proteges like Josh Gottheimer. The poll is comically leading. It asked whether we “need large-scale social welfare spending now” or “favor a strategic pause to understand the implications of spending $3.5 trillion.”

I tried to capture some of the inanity here …

(There was also an issue with, if you’ll notice, the pro-Manchin bars being dramatically bigger than the pro-Biden ones, even when the numbers were reversed. But that seems to have been a technical glitch.)

This basically amounts to ‘do you favor spending a shitload of money’ or ‘taking a moment to figure out what you’re spending it on’. No pollster trying to gauge opinion words a poll that way. It generated 60% support for Manchin’s ‘strategic pause’. But that’s what pressure groups do: generate leading polls. Here though it ran on Axios as basically straight news. And there we get to the heart of the matter. Mark Penn to Axios to Mike Allen to Joe Manchin … with Josh Gottheimer in for a brief heel turn along the way.

Few casts of characters more typify the right-leaning DC establishment insider culture than this one. It’s no accident that they’re generating bogus polls about his latest feint or running them as hard news. It’s a big reason why DC and elite DC press remains wired for Republicans despite being run mostly by people who are not at least partisan Republicans themselves.

And here we are.

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