Column: I really didn’t think he’d do it. But I was wrong about Joe Manchin’s weak character

Sen. Joe Manchin speaks to reporters
Sen. Joe Manchin on Capitol Hill in October.
(Andrew Harnik / Associated Press)

For months people have been saying to me — until I got sick of hearing it — that the Democrats in Congress are a mess, their own worst enemies.

They’re disorganized, divided and disloyal, my friends told me. Joe Manchin is an untrustworthy snake. That’s why they’re going to fail to pass President Biden’s big climate, social spending and tax bill — and as a result they’re going lose in the midterm election and possibly lose the White House as well in 2024.

Calm down, calm down, I repeatedly responded. The system is working just as it’s supposed to work.

Congress, I’d say patiently, is a collection of individuals with a variety of positions and agendas. Even within the Democratic Party they range from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders on one end to Sens. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Manchin of West Virginia on the other.

Opinion Columnist

Nicholas Goldberg

Nicholas Goldberg served 11 years as editor of the editorial page and is a former editor of the Op-Ed page and Sunday Opinion section.

If they don’t agree at first, well, they’re not supposed to agree at first. Their job is to forge agreement. To express their differences and — working cooperatively — resolve them. The White House proposes a big multibillion-dollar bill full of social spending. Manchin, a Democrat elected by relatively conservative voters, says it’s too costly for him to support. The squad presses for more spending. Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer and his lieutenants try to wrangle the votes in the Senate. Biden cajoles, flatters and twists arms.

Of course, there’s a lot of posturing. Self-serving statements, threatened walkouts, closed-door meetings.

The bill, I said, would no doubt shrink during the course of the negotiations; its total spending would drop from what was once as much as $6 trillion to far, far less. The negotiators might miss their self-imposed deadlines, but so what if it takes a couple of extra months to get to yes?

In the end, I said smugly, there’d most likely be a package, probably including universal pre-K, expanded healthcare access, an expanded child care tax credit and lots of dollars to fight climate change. Some members of Congress would feel it was not enough and others would feel it was too much — but they’d all stand at the podium and declare victory.


And really, it would be a victory.

That’s what I actually, foolishly, naively believed until Sunday, when it turned out I was entirely, embarrassingly wrong.

Because Manchin, whom I was defending despite my deep disagreements with his neo-Republican politics, broke the rules of the game. He walked away. Instead of doing the hard work of crafting a compromise, as he had promised Biden he would, he declared he was at his “wits’ end” and backed out entirely. Instead of fighting on, he took the coward’s way out, perhaps because he’s sincerely concerned about inflation and the federal debt, perhaps because he felt irked that his concerns weren’t being adequately tended to by the White House or perhaps out of fealty to the coal industry in his state.

Whatever it was, he took his ball and went home, dealing a most likely fatal blow to the $1.75-trillion legislation that was to have been the cornerstone of Biden’s domestic policy.

Now there’s always the possibility that Manchin will come back like little kids sometimes do. He’s flip-flopped already, and there’s nothing to stop him from doing so again, as the White House noted. But at the moment it doesn’t look likely.

It’s more than a shame; it’s a deep betrayal — not just of his promise to Biden, but of his responsibility as a U.S. senator. In the face of the climate change catastrophe barreling toward us all, in the face of enormous social needs in the country, you don’t run away. You stick around to get things done.

The Republicans in Congress forgot that basic principle a long time ago. They’ve long since decided that they don’t like compromise, which hands victories to Democrats. They prefer rejectionism and obstructionism in hopes of winning power back in the next set of elections.


But I thought the Democrats, working among themselves with their tiny little majority, could pull this one off.

I don’t deny that Manchin has the right to wield his disproportionate power over this piece of legislation even though he’s just a single senator from one of the country’s least populous states, with fewer than 2 million people. I don’t like it, but it’s the way our democracy works.

When you’ve got a split Senate, evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, then anyone who sits right smack in the center is going to have outsize bargaining power. Right now, the numbers are such that this self-described “conservative Democrat” from puny West Virginia is the critical swing vote and, to the dismay of progressives everywhere, is as powerful when it comes to legislation as Schumer, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi or even Joe Biden.

But as they say, with great power comes great responsibility. And he’s failed to hold up that second part of the bargain.

Manchin has gone beyond disloyalty to the Democratic Party. He behaved abominably toward democracy itself.