If Democrats hope to enact a “Build Back Better agenda” that expands Medicare, provides paid family leave, lifts children out of poverty, and saves the planet, they’re going to have to speak bluntly not just about Republican obstruction but also about the Democrats who are standing in the way of progress.
Most members of the Senate Democratic Caucus are reticent about stating the obvious. But Senate Budget Committee chair Bernie Sanders did so on Sunday, when he explained to West Virginians that their senior senator was on the wrong side of Biden’s plan, “a historic opportunity to support the working families of West Virginia.”
Sanders wrote an opinion piece for the Sunday edition of the Charleston Gazette-Mail, the daily newspaper in West Virginia’s capital city, which by Monday morning was the top-trending piece on the paper’s website. In it, he argued for the plan that is backed by President Biden and the vast majority of congressional Democrats as essential legislation that would benefit West Virginians.
“The Build Back Better plan is not only vitally important for seniors, but it is enormously important for working families and their children,” wrote Sanders. “As a result of the $300 direct payments to working class parents which began in the American Rescue Plan, we have cut childhood poverty in our country by half. It would be unconscionable to see those payments end, which is exactly what will happen if we do not pass this bill.”
The senator from Vermont went on to explain that while the plan is opposed “by every Republican in Congress as well as the drug companies, the insurance companies, the fossil fuel industry and the billionaire class,” Republicans aren’t the only obstructionists. “Poll after poll shows overwhelming support for this legislation. Yet, the political problem we face is that in a 50-50 Senate we need every Democratic senator to vote ‘yes.’ We now have only 48. Two Democratic senators remain in opposition, including Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.”
Sanders was just stating the facts. But Manchin couldn’t handle the truth.
“This isn’t the first time an out-of-stater has tried to tell West Virginians what is best for them despite having no relationship to our state,” griped the senator. After learning that the Sanders op-ed would appear in the Sunday edition of the widely read Gazette-Mail, he said in a statement, “Millions of jobs are open, supply chains are strained and unavoidable inflation taxes are draining workers’ hard-earned wages as the price of gasoline and groceries continues to rise. Senator Sanders’ answer is to throw more money on an already overheated economy while 52 other senators have grave concerns about this approach. I will not vote for a reckless expansion of government programs. No op-ed from a self-declared Independent socialist is going to change that.”
Manchin didn’t bother to mention that the “reckless expansion of government” proposed by Sanders is also favored by the man he backed for president in 2020, Joe Biden. Nor was he clear about the fact that the “52 other senators” Manchin referred to in his screed are—with the exception of himself and Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema—members of a Senate Republican Caucus so bent on blocking Biden that, as minority leader Mitch McConnell put it, “One-hundred percent of our focus is on stopping this new administration.”
Of course, McConnell claims the plan championed by Sanders is “an effort to exploit this terrible but temporary pandemic as a Trojan Horse for permanent socialism.” But when Manchin, who like Sanders is a member of the Senate Democratic Caucus, plays the “socialist” card, it’s fair to assume that he’s not really bothered by Sanders’s ideology.
Manchin is frightened that if West Virginians know what’s in the bill, they will start asking why their senator isn’t backing it. That’s why, despite his initially vitriolic response, Manchin was talking with Sanders by Monday, and appearing briefly before TV cameras with the Vermonter.
For all his bravado, Manchin’s on shaky ground.
The Data for Progress polling group asked West Virginia voters late in the summer about “a $3.5 trillion investment plan [that] would expand Medicare, and make health care, child care and long-term care for seniors and people with disabilities more affordable. This plan would also invest in clean energy, and extend tax cuts for most families with children.” The response: Sixty-eight percent of those surveyed said they’d back such a plan, while only 25 percent said they’d oppose it.
In other words, Manchin isn’t channeling the sentiments of West Virginians who do not want to expand Medicare and care for kids. He’s channeling the grumbling of billionaire campaign donors who disapprove of the reconciliation bill’s proposal to make the rich pay their fair share, and of the pharmaceutical companies that object to lower drug prices. As Sanders put it, opponents of the bill “want to maintain the status quo in which the very rich get richer while ordinary Americans continue to struggle to make ends meet.”
In the particular case of Manchin, there are also arguments that he is more focused on protecting his own wealth—much of which is based on investments in the fossil fuel industry—than on protecting West Virginians.
“It’s estimated that President Joe Biden’s clean energy goals would add 3,508 full-time jobs in West Virginia, increase total earnings for state residents by $172 million through 2040 and bring $20.9 billion of investment in new power plants,” explained an editorial last week in the Gazette-Mail. “Projections also show it would make West Virginia a healthier place to live. And these findings aren’t from some liberal think tank, but an analysis conducted by West Virginia University researchers and economic modeling experts.”
The editorial continued, “More and more, it’s looking like Manchin’s real problem with the plan is that it would hurt his wallet.”
There’s no such speculation regarding Sanders, who is simply telling West Virginians, “I believe that now is the time, finally, for Congress to stand up for working families and have the courage to take on the big money interests and wealthy campaign contributors who have so much power over the economic and political life of our country.”
Those who don’t pay much attention to West Virginia politics might assume that no one in the state has any regard for what the senator from Vermont says about expanding Medicare. But when Sanders last campaigned in the state, as a progressive contender for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016, he carried every one of West Virginia’s 55 counties.
Two years later, in the 2018 election cycle that yielded good results for Democrats even in Republican-trending states such as West Virginia, Manchin’s share of the vote fell below 50 percent. He was reelected by fewer than 20,000 votes, and lost more than two dozen counties. Those numbers are unlikely to improve the next time Manchin’s on the ballot.
While Manchin is trying to paint Sanders as the outlier, when West Virginians rallied outside the statehouse in Charleston recently, Pam Garrison, the cochair of the West Virginia Poor People’s Campaign, focused on Manchin’s abandonment of the state. “To Senator Manchin, this comes from West Virginia,” she said. “We are not buying your garbage. Either you stand with us, or you are against us.”