How Democrats Lost Build Back Better

How Democrats Lost Build Back Better

Most Democrats, including progressives, are unwilling to reflect on the strategic errors they made along the way.


The Build Back Better Act, President Joe Biden’s signature social safety net legislation, is now dead—in its current form, at least. After months of grueling negotiations, during which the initial $6 trillion proposal slowly shrunk to $1.7 trillion over 10 years, Senator Joe Manchin went on Fox News last weekend to deliver the final blow.

“I cannot vote to continue with this piece of legislation. I just can’t. I’ve tried everything humanly possible. I can’t get there,” the West Virginia senator told Fox News Sunday.

Manchin’s rejection of the Democratic Party’s climate and poverty alleviation legislation comes at a dire time. Most Democrats and political observers considered this the last, best chance to take on the climate crisis for a decade, or even a generation. If Build Back Better is truly dead, it would make it impossible for the United States, the biggest carbon polluter in history, to meet its emissions reduction goals. And the inability—or unwillingness—to improve working people’s material conditions will almost certainly doom Democrats in the midterms, which tend to swing in favor of the minority party.

The White House immediately accused Manchin of going back on his word to Biden, stating that his comments on Sunday represent “a sudden and inexplicable reversal in his position” and a “breach of his commitments” to the president and his colleagues in the House and Senate. Progressives are just as livid. Left-leaning lawmakers like Representatives Jamaal Bowman of New York and Cori Bush of Missouri skewered Manchin for being beholden to corporate interests. “Joe Manchin has become the new Mitch McConnell,” Bowman said. “Manchin is not pushing us closer to bipartisanship. He is doing the work of the Republican Party.” In the meantime, Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer has promised to bring the legislation up for a vote “very early” in 2022, despite Manchin’s objections.

But most Democrats, including progressives, are unwilling to reflect on the strategic errors they made along the way. During a call with reporters on Monday, Representative Pramila Jayapal, leader of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said she had “no regrets” over progressives’ decision to decouple Build Back Better from the bipartisan infrastructure bill, giving up their primary source of leverage and relying on Manchin’s word alone.

“This is a question that I’ve gone over in my head a million times,” Jayapal said. “And I can tell you, I don’t. Because I really believe, and these are all tactical judgments that you have to make in the moment, but what I now believe seeing what Senator Manchin did yesterday, is that I don’t believe that the senator actually wanted to pass Build Back Better.”

“Had we not passed the infrastructure bill, I actually think that that would have been the day that the senator said the Build Back Better Act is done,” she continued. But the Build Back Better Act is still dead, time that could have been spent addressing the pandemic and other crises has been wasted, and congressional progressives—after flexing their power for the first time in CPC history—caved anyway.

Jayapal said that it’s “abundantly clear” that Manchin cannot be trusted, but emphasized the fact that she had “not said anything against him all these months” because she believed he was negotiating “in good faith.” In response to another question about the CPCs strategy, and whether this experience could change progressives’ approach going forward, Jayapal replied: “I feel like our strategy worked really well.”

Blocking the infrastructure bill, Jayapal said, boxed Manchin into a corner, forcing him to agree to the Build Back Better framework, so “I think our strategy was exactly the right strategy.” But only the six House members who make up the Squad held the line, voting against the infrastructure bill to keep the two pieces of legislation linked. The rest of the Progressive Caucus gave in under pressure from conservative Democrats and party leaders. Now, they’re calling on the president to pass aspects of Build Back Better through executive action. But counting on the same guy who’s refused to use executive action to wipe student loans, lift deadly sanctions, and fulfill his other campaign pledges to come through on this one seems to be about as winning a strategy as negotiating with the senator from West Virginia.

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