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Manchin Is Dems’ Secret Santa
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Manchin Is Dems’ Secret Santa

Build Back Better, on hold for the time being, would have been a net loser for Democrats nationally.

Joe Manchin has done Democrats a massive political favor. While there won’t be any ticker-tape parades for the senator from West Virginia, you can bet that lots of folks on the blue team from the White House and Congress are quietly happy to be done with Build Back Better for the time being.

Washington so often conflates politics and policy. Partisans tend to assume that the policies they like are popular. This is true because they live in bubbles where everybody agrees. This is also true because they, against lots of evidence to the contrary, tend to think of themselves as being smart.

Such was the case in the previous presidential administration with repealing Obamacare. Republicans had been huffing bad polls for the Affordable Care Act since before it passed in 2010 like stoners cracking whip-its at a Rusted Root show. But they read the polls wrong. A substantial chunk of the opposition had been from the left, where many felt the new entitlement was too stingy. When it came time to repeal the law in 2017, Republicans realized that the dissatisfied majority was useless. There was no consensus, even among the GOP, on what to put in Obamacare’s place.

The solution was avoidance. Republicans announced that they would go for a fake repeal of the law in 2017, apply the hypothetical savings to the tax cut they were far more interested in passing, and then return in a few years to actually repeal and replace the benefits. It was a shoddy budgetary trick and the height of irresponsibility for a party that had spent seven years promising to repeal the law without ever settling on a replacement.

So, when Sen. John McCain ended the sputtering effort with his vote against the cut-now-spend-later proposal called “skinny repeal,” he was doing Republicans a huge favor. Most of them could not have faced primary voters after pointing out what an obvious shambles the repeal effort had been. Had McCain not given his famous thumbs down, the process would have lurched forward with the House-passed bill dead in the Senate and the ersatz “skinny” repeal facing an uncertain future in the House. And all of that was interfering with what Republicans really wanted to do, which was to pass a tax cut to juice the economy.

Every Republican from the president on down could say, falsely but convincingly: “We would have made all your health care dreams come true if it hadn’t been for that darned McCain.” Since the 2008 GOP nominee was already an object of intense hatred on the right wing of the party, what’s one more killed bill? The GOP got to duck primary voters who had been promised repeal while not having to further upset persuadable voters who were already highly skeptical of the party’s health insurance stances. Republicans who believed Obamacare to be hugely unpopular argued that McCain’s “betrayal” cost the party in the 2018 midterms.

There may be something to that when it comes to maintaining frenzied engagement among activists, a consideration that always varies by district and state. But in the nation as a whole, McCain actually helped the GOP out of the tight spot where it had lodged itself. And so it goes with Manchin and “skinny” Build Back Better.

Here’s how CNBC put it in an apt summation of consensus around the $1.75 trillion package: “Several Democratic lawmakers viewed the legislation as the key to boosting working families and showing voters they can govern before the 2022 midterms.” Now, this would sound less preposterous if the same progressives now seething at Manchin had not demanded and obtained a months-long delay in passing a popular, bipartisan infrastructure bill to try to obtain an advantage for the then-larger, less popular, partisan bill. After wasting much of 2021 engaged in empty symbolism to placate radicals and budgetary theater, jamming Build Back Better through with a vice-presidential tiebreaker wouldn’t have shown voters anything like capable governance.

But even if President Biden and party leaders in Congress had been able to convince Rep. Pramila Jayapal and the Congressional Progressive Caucus to not hold the infrastructure bill hostage, Build Back Better would have been a net loser for Democrats nationally. It is true that the social welfare package scored some good polls. A Monmouth University poll this month found strong support for Build Back Better had slipped from July and November, but that overall support was still hanging on at 61 percent. But check out how pollsters described the legislation: “a plan to expand access to healthcare and childcare, and provide paid leave and college tuition support.” The only reason that shallow, cheery description didn’t get 80 percent support were the respondents who actually know what legislation Monmouth was euphemizing.

Republican attack ads will not be so generous in their descriptions. They will focus on something else the poll says: that inflation is the No. 1 concern for voters now.

Democrats have sometimes argued that Build Back Better’s deficit spending wouldn’t increase inflation. Other times, we have heard that the bill will actually reduce inflation. You could argue that it will help poor people suffering the most from high prices, but not that it would actually bring prices down. The opposite is true. The House moderates who voted for the bill, many because of higher deductions for state and local income valuable to wealthy suburbanites, will face a similar fate as those moderates whom Pelosi made vote for carbon taxes before the 2010 midterm bloodbath. Nothing can be done for the House moderates now. They voted for a bill loaded with provisions sure to be unpopular in swing districts and have nothing to show for it in lower taxes for their constituents. Pelosi marched them right into Manchin’s buzz saw.

Some argue that the right thing to do is to break up the legislation into its constituent parts and then try to force Senate votes on individual measures. On clearly popular issues, like the child tax credit, that makes lots of sense. It’s unclear what Jayapal and her Senate counterpart, Bernie Sanders, will allow in this way, but it might be a political winner to come back next year with something more manageable. It would show voters that Democrats are listening. Or maybe they’ll just stay at each other’s throats until next summer when everyone starts blaming the opposing faction for an inevitable midterm rout.

We’ll see. But in the states and districts where Democrats’ fate will be decided, Manchin has given his party a reprieve. I’ve heard many Democrats grousing that Manchin has given an early Christmas gift to Republicans. On policy grounds that may be so, but the politics point in the other direction. There are lots of moderate and swing-state Democrats who may be publicly grumbling about Manchin’s McCain move, but they will very quietly be singing glorias to Manchin this Christmas.

Chris Stirewalt is a contributing editor at The Dispatch, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, the politics editor for NewsNation, co-host of the Ink Stained Wretches podcast, and author of Broken News, a book on media and politics.