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Democrats Need to Suck It Up

In order to avert a catastrophe for democracy, the party must get over its Joe Manchin problem ahead of the 2022 midterms.

Francis Chung/E&E News & Politico/AP

George Orwell may have had the right idea about how Democrats should react to the apostasy of Joe Manchin. In 1984, Orwell describes Two Minutes Hate as a daily ritual during which party members rage against Enemies of the People like Emmanuel Goldstein who had rebelled against Big Brother. As Orwell puts it, “The horrible thing about Two Minutes Hate was not that one was obliged to act a part, but, on the contrary, it was impossible to avoid joining in.” 

So maybe Democrats should scream about how Manchin has sold out his economically struggling home state of West Virginia by repeatedly betraying Joe Biden and the White House in negotiations over the Build Back Better Act. They can roar about his campaign contributions from the energy industry and his popularity among major GOP donors. Two Minutes Hate, with a bit of invective reserved for the mercurial Senator Kyrsten Sinema, may feel cathartic. But in the end, it’s as effective as primarying Manchin from the left in 2024 in a state that Donald Trump carried by better than a two-to-one margin.

Barring a Manchin conversion experience on par with Liz Cheney’s, the truth is that Democrats—whether progressives, liberals, or moderates—will soon have only one pragmatic option as the 2022 elections loom on the horizon: “Suck it up.” This applies to dispirited members of Congress, frustrated party activists, and occasional viewers of MSNBC.

The message is akin to the opening words of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer: “God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.”  Manchin is unlikely to change, so Democrats need the serenity to accept the limitations of a senator who does offer, according to FiveThirtyEight, a 97 percent voting record in support of the Biden agenda. That means once the calendar rolls over to 2022, no more Sunday shows appearances griping about Manchin’s intransigence, and no more public outcry from Bernie Sanders and the Squad.

Serenity is not exactly the Democrats’s strong point these days. But consider the alternative. Chuck Schumer is Senate majority leader only with Manchin’s vote, which is why Mitch McConnell is so ardently wooing him and Democratic rage is counterproductive. If Manchin were to abandon caucusing with the Democrats, McConnell would swap positions with Schumer. Majority Leader McConnell would mean no more Biden judicial appointments, even if Stephen Breyer could be coaxed off the Supreme Court. Every other Biden appointee would, in effect, have to be cleared by Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley. And if another Covid emergency bill were needed, it would be McConnell who would dictate its terms.

A strong case can be made that Biden and the congressional Democrats have already accomplished more than might have been expected with a 50-50 Senate and a House majority that can counted on the fingers of one hand. The Biden $1.9 trillion stimulus was more than double the size of Barack Obama’s economic program in the wake of the 2008 financial meltdown. Although left-wingers wanted to hold it hostage, the Biden $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill is the largest legislation of its kind in American history. Not just a highway bill, the legislation includes the biggest upsurge in funding for Amtrak in history, more than $15 billion for the elimination of lead pipes carrying drinking water, and nearly $50 billion to help communities protect against the extreme ravages of climate change.

But instead of touting these successes as a laudable track record for any president, Biden has spent his first year in office fostering grand, unrealistic expectations with a sense of optimism that Mr. Micawber, the cheerful deadbeat in David Copperfield, might have envied. The president’s premature July celebration at the White House (“The virus is on the run, and America is coming back”) provided a prime example. So did the Biden team’s stubborn willingness to keep floating an ambitious $3.5 trillion spending figure months after it was evident that Manchin might only support a plan half that size.

Some of this may have reflected internal Democratic politics, since Biden was keenly aware of the lengthy left-wing wish list and the fervor of those who demanded immediate action on all fronts. The roll call of festering problems is long: the melting icecaps; the broken immigration system; Republican assaults on voting rights; the burden on parents struggling to afford childcare; the uneven trajectory of the economic recovery; and, of course, the never-ending pandemic. But the magnitude of the problems neither created a single new vote in the Senate nor prevented a small group of Northeastern moderates in the House from prioritizing a subsidy to the affluent by increasing the deductibility of state and local taxes on federal returns.

History should have encouraged realism in the White House. Unless you recast FDR as a Marvel superhero (“New Deal Man”), no president can transcend the policy challenges of a lifetime in just the first year in office—even if his party enjoys much wider margins than a tied Senate. But the problem with Democratic voters has long been impatience. As the party that believes in activist government, Democrats are particularly prone to disappointment in off-year elections following a presidential victory when they discover that unicorns are not grazing on the White House lawn. While, of course, there were other factors, this helped upended Bill Clinton in 1994 and Obama in 2010.  

Electoral politics is not a fad diet that you abandon after two years if you don’t like your reflection in the mirror. It is a long-haul commitment based on a belief that, in a democratic society, most positive change comes incrementally. Medicare was enacted in law in 1965, two decades after Harry Truman had initially proposed universal coverage. The Affordable Care Act was built upon the 1994 failure of Clinton’s health care plan.

Right-wingers have typically understood the realistic pace of political change. The likely repeal or massive evisceration of Roe v. Wade is the culmination of more than four decades of conservative judicial activism. The expansion of gun rights and open-carry laws has followed the same trajectory. The Federalist Society didn’t go out of business in 1990 because conservatives were still a minority on the Supreme Court.

Many Americans are suffering from Democracy Fatigue, a malady almost as debilitating as Covid Fatigue. After being warned that democracy was on the ballot in 2020 and reveling in the defeat of Trump, it is tempting for many sometime-voters to take a breather from politics. Suburban moderates, who voted for Biden in 2020 out of distaste for Trump rather than an endorsement of Democratic ideology, may be tempted to return to their GOP roots in 2022, following the model of the successful Glenn Youngkin gubernatorial campaign in Virginia.

Nothing could be more dangerous. Where once the Republicans were a party that combined patient opposition to domestic spending with socially conservative fearmongering, they have morphed during the Trump years into something far more odious. These days, Republicans from the House GOP caucus to the Fox News studios have become the party of Coup Denial. In the GOP’s retelling, January 6 was a glorious day when patriotic Americans took a well-deserved, unescorted stroll through the Capitol. Talk of “hanging Mike Pence” was as misunderstood as the supposed cries of “Let’s go, Brandon.” What the Trumpian protesters at the Capitol were really shouting was “Hug Mike Pence,” just an expression of gratitude for his loyal service as a lapdog vice president.

Democracy is again on the ballot in 2022, as it will probably be in every election throughout the decade as long as the GOP continues to express its support for Trump-style authoritarianism. Republican congressional gains next year would empower future efforts to thwart voting rights and to undermine a free election in 2024. Gubernatorial races in swing states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Georgia, and Arizona may determine whether the electoral votes in 2024 will be cast honestly or rigged for a Trumpian restoration. Even though both congressional gerrymandering and new obstacles to voting, particularly in the South, are apt to aid the Republicans in 2022, the situation is not nearly as bleak as many Democrats assume. The Senate map, for example, offers potential pickup opportunities in states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and North Carolina without any Democratic incumbent facing an impossible race like those of Doug Jones in Alabama in 2020 or Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota in 2018.

Already, Democrats are awash with pessimism about 2022 as they confront daunting poll numbers for Biden and strong indications that voters are currently primed to elect Republicans to Congress. But almost everything could change between now and next November as inflationary pressures likely ease and the unemployment rate plunges below 4 percent. Even more important, at this stage, almost all polling is about the pandemic, no matter what question is asked. If omicron—or an even more frightening letter of the Greek alphabet—remains dominant in the fall of 2022, then the outlook is indeed dire for the Democrats. But there is also a strong possibility (and, no, I don’t claim to be an epidemiologist) that the pandemic will eventually start petering out. If that happens, then 2021 poll numbers will probably give way to a more buoyant expression of confidence in the future under Biden and the Democrats.  

Any optimistic scenario about the Democrats holding their own in 2022 depends on one factor—turnout. The more that pique with Manchin and the truncated Biden agenda fuels disillusionment about electoral politics, the more that Democratic despair becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. The easiest way to disempower Manchin is to elect another Democratic senator or two in 2022 so that the West Virginian is not always the deciding vote in a 50-50 body. Sucking it up for the 2022 elections may not reflect the gospel of feel-good politics, but sometimes there is a major difference between strategies that are effective and those that are merely emotionally satisfying.

The truth is that, more than ever, the Democrats need to be a big-tent party with a willingness to reach out to never-Trump Republicans and dismayed moderates. Ideological litmus tests make no sense when the future of the nation is on the line. Democrats don’t have time for the pain of disappointment. All it takes is one devastating GOP wave election like 1994 or 2010 and democracy is doomed. These apocalyptic words are not offered lightly or hyperbolically. But after January 6, no civics-book truth about America can ever again be taken for granted. That’s why it is dangerously self-indulgent for frustration with Joe Manchin to undermine Democratic turnout in 2022. Revile Manchin all you want—but organize and vote.