Joe Manchin Loves Him Some Hippie Punching
If he didn't have BBB to kill, he'd have to invent something else.
1. Damn Dirty Hippies
I hope you weren’t surprised that Joe Manchin killed Biden’s BBB plan on Sunday. Tim Miller told you this was going to happen. Go and read last Thursday’s dispatch from the future.
But I want to talk a bit about how Manchin killed BBB. Because it’s revealing of what Manchin is doing.
There are a dozen ways Manchin could have closed the door on Build Back Better. Hold a press conference. Write an op-ed for the Washington Post. Sit down with Jake Tapper. Whatever—just choose one of the following lines:
I understand President Biden’s goals and I share them. But the price tag on this is too high. America would come to regret it.
There’s a lot of good in BBB, but this is the wrong time for aggressive government expansion. Inflation is Public Enemy #1 and we can’t take our eye off the ball.
Maybe BBB is good for people in California, or Georgia, or Pennsylvania. But I live in West Virginia. My constituents don’t want it. And I represent their interests first, last, and always.
We tried damn hard to come to a compromise on BBB—and we did it with zero Republican buy-in, because all they’re interested in doing is obstructing the president’s agenda. But at the end of the day, we couldn’t find a place where we were all comfortable that we were doing the right thing. And it’s better to do nothing than to force a compromise that no one thinks is good for America.
All of these are easy ways out, yes? Gracious. Protective of his fellow Democrats. He looks good. They look good. Just a big ol’ bunch of patriots trying to do right by America!
What did Joe Manchin do?
He went on Fox News to break the news:
And then he put out a statement accusing Democrats of trying to “dramatically reshape our society.”
What was Manchin thinking?
He was thinking, Oooh boy. Gonna punch me some hippies and show the folks back in the hollar that I’m one of them even if I don’t wear that thum red hat.
Hippie punching is when centrist Democrats beat up on people to their left in an attempt to ingratiate themselves with voters to their right. Think of it as the substance-free, performative version of policy triangulation. Hippie punching is a reverse-culture war, where the centrist Dem goes looking to sucker-punch his erstwhile allies in the hope of buying some electoral support from his marginal opponents.
And let’s be clear: Manchin didn’t just bail on BBB. He pulled out in a way designed to cause maximum damage to Biden, sitting Democrats, and every Democrat running for office in 2022. He damn near cut an ad for Republican congressional candidates.
The only Democrat helped by this hippie punching? Joe Manchin.
Here I should say that I’m not averse to hippie punching. As with everything in politics, it’s a question of cost-benefit.
What are the costs of Manchin blowing up BBB the way he did? It’ll contribute to the loss of the House (definitely) and the Senate (probably). It will make life harder for centrist House Dems who put themselves on the line for BBB by letting their GOP opponents say that even Other Democrats admitted they were trying to pull off a socialist transformation of America.
It’ll hurt Biden’s approval rating, at least in the short term.
And it gives aid and comfort to Republicans who are already preparing to take down the second half of Biden’s term so as to soften the ground for the Trump restoration.
So, you know, the costs are not insubstantial.
What’s the benefit?
Well . . .
Manchin’s performative pole-axing of fellow Democrats could maybe, possibly, help his reelection campaign in 2024. Though there are a couple of big caveats:
If he runs. The dude will be 78.
If he can even win. GOP candidates have increased their vote-share in WV in 6 consecutive presidential elections. And in 2018—a great Dem midterm environment—Manchin had to gut out a 3-point win against a replacement-level Republican.
Last week Tim wrote that Manchin is the only thing standing between Dems and Republican Sen. Cletus Von Ivermectin in 2024. And he’s right! Manchin is the only D with an even theoretical shot at holding that seat.
But how big is that theoretical shot, anyway? It’s not very big. It’s actually quite small.
The Republican vote in West Virginia has been increasing steadily for a generation. Manchin will be an old man running for a fourth time in a state that’s moving in the other direction. He can punch all the hippies he wants and still lose. Between his age and the environment, the smart money is probably against him, no matter what.
And if Manchin isn’t a Democratic senator from West Virginia in 2025, then what did his hippie punching buy Democrats?
A hot cup of jack squat.
Here I should say that I don’t actually care about BBB. Some things in the bill probably would have been helpful. Others less so. I’m sure that people who care a great deal about climate change will see it as a missed opportunity. But at the end of the day, I agree with Manchin’s contention that the most important task for the administration right now is focusing like a laser on inflation.1
So I don’t think that Manchin should have gone out in a blaze of glory for the Triple-B.
But there are some legislative items that absolutely would be worth Manchin setting his career on fire for. Here are two:
A serious voting-rights bill that set minimum standards for mail-in voting and voter ID, attacked gerrymandering, and reformed the Electoral Count Act.
Either one of them would be worth Manchin antagonizing his voters torching any chance of reelection. Because America would benefit more from them—much more—than we would from having a tiny chance of there being a Democratic senator from West Virginia four years from now.
But the fact that Manchin seems so interested in punching hippies suggests that he sees no greater good for the country aside from his continued presence in politics. And he’s willing to lash out at whoever he has to in order to further that cause. No matter what that costs everyone else.
One last thing you need to understand about Manchin’s hippie punching: