Purple Manchin’s Majesty

There are distinct advantages to being a one-man political party.

In West Virginia, a person of some notable insight or connection for a local political gang—or at least notable compared to his or her comrades—is called a “one-eye.” If you wonder why the sheriff is backing the challenger for the state legislature or why the judge’s nephew lost his job with the highway department, the one-eye knows, and may even have pictures. He is the Karl Rove of the creeks, the Jen O’Malley Dillon of the hollers.

The folks using the term in Slab Fork or Salt Rock might not know it, but it goes back more than 500 years to at least Erasmus of Rotterdam who told us, “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.” Which brings us to West Virginia’s own Joe Manchin and his fellow Senate Democrats. They’re in the dark and he’s got the crown.

On Friday, Manchin all but killed President Biden’s nomination of Neera Tanden, Hillary Clinton loyalist and partisan knife fighter, to be the director of the Office of Management and Budget. Citing her cruel, contemptuous demeanor on Twitter, Manchin took the head count down to 49 senators in favor, one shy of the tie that Vice President Kamala Harris could break in Tanden’s favor. Biden said he’s still all in for Tanden, but unless he can find a Republican interested in taking a beating for a candidate who is both widely disliked and without special qualifications, her nomination is done for.

This is an important fight symbolically and practically for Biden. Unlike the Trump administration, Biden plans to restore the OMB to some of its greater glories of the past. Biden has his eyes on a big fiscal deal with Congress after the next round of pandemic stimulus. With the federal debt three times larger than it was a decade ago and $1 trillion deficits lined up like dominoes, he’s hardly the only one. The kind of deal Biden is looking for would have to run right through OMB, just like the ones of the 1990s.

So why pick someone hated by Republicans, mistrusted by Democrats, and aligned with one of your rivals?

The way to understand the Tanden pick is as a heads-I-win-tails-you-lose kind of presidential appointment. If Biden can get her through, it will please the partisan warlords of the internet and add yet more diversity to his Cabinet-level team. If she proves a problem on the job, the president can just cut her out of the loop and eventually force her out after a year. But if Tanden gets submarined, she might even be more valuable to Biden. Tanden’s hyper-partisanship and Twitter nastygrams are off-brand for the new administration’s cult of Kumbaya. If those are the attributes that cost her confirmation, it makes the Senate, or at least one senator from West Virginia, the enforcement mechanism. Tanden is perfect for the role of part sacrificial lamb, part cautionary tale.

If her nomination is defeated or withdrawn, Biden could get the man some Democrats on Capitol Hill believe is his real first choice, Gene Sperling. Sperling, who served as the top economic adviser to both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, fits the Biden profile perfectly. Aside from being an Obama retread, he’s got a track record of success on big, bipartisan negotiations. He was a key player on the 1997 balanced-budget deal and helped Democrats win key policy objectives like the Children’s Health Insurance Program and the Clinton tax hikes on top earners. Heck, he was even an adviser to the fan-fiction version of the Clinton presidency, The West Wing.

Progressives have plenty of problems with Sperling, even aside from his being a 62-year-old white dude. They see him as too cozy with the financial industry and the kind of neoliberal, globalist, corporate-approved policy wonk who would trade away key left-wing initiatives in the name of grand bargains. That’s not to say that Tanden is some kind of dreamboat for socialists. She helped turn the liberal think tank the Center for American Progress into a corporate cash register for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 candidacy and has spent years in an ugly feud with Bernie Sanders and his key supporters. But unlike Sperling, she is a reliable partisan pugilist who has treated Republicans as wholly illegitimate. Whatever sweet songs she’s been singing as she has tried to save her nomination, every senator has to believe she’d sooner die than give Mitch McConnell a win.

When he won re-election in 2018 as a Democrat in one of the Trumpiest states in the Union, Manchin immediately became a dangerous man in the Senate. With no liberal base in the Mountain State, Manchin is especially hard for left-wing factions to pressure. And with the Senate deadlocked, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer can’t afford any rough stuff with Manchin. The more Democrats scorn him, the stronger Manchin becomes back home and the harder he is to pressure next time.

In the same way, killing the Tanden nomination would give Manchin more wiggle room on other issues. If every West Virginia voter knows Manchin scuttled Biden’s liberal budget nominee, that means Manchin has more political capital to spend on a more consequential vote down the line. Any West Virginia one-eye would applaud the play. Biden may be the president, but in the Senate these days, Manchin’s the king.