But Sen. Sherrod Brown is also a Democrat hailing from difficult political terrain: Ohio, which has grown increasingly red in the Donald Trump era. Yet Brown has adopted a dramatically different approach from Manchin, and remains alive to tell the tale.
Brown has long advocated for a generous child tax credit, which was expanded earlier this year to send $300 per month to most American families, including poorer ones, and begins phasing out at above $150,000 in family income. That makes it nearly universal. Manchin wants to cut that threshold to $60,000 and impose work requirements.
In an interview, Brown said he had a long talk with Manchin on Tuesday about the policy, and urged him to appreciate how much it has done for low income people in their two states.
“It’s dropped the child poverty rate by 40 percent in West Virginia and Ohio — I made that case to Joe,” Brown told me. “Why change something that’s working so well?”
Brown said he’s cautiously optimistic that Manchin is coming around. “He was listening,” Brown told me.
Brown said he told Manchin that he’d be willing to phase out the child tax credit at the higher end faster than it currently does. But Brown stressed to Manchin that a work requirement and $60,000 threshold would reverse the progress that’s already been made.
Brown noted that he regularly hears from Ohio parents who are benefiting from the policy. One parent told him: “For the first time, my son can have a week at summer camp.” Another said: “I just don’t have the same anxiety the last week of the month to pay my rent.”
“Now they have a little bit of a cushion and a whole lot less anxiety,” Brown told me. “I don’t want to take any of that away.”
Brown says he talked to Manchin about another problem with work requirements spelled out by Catherine Rampell. In some families, parents have died prematurely or are incapacitated by addiction, and struggling grandparents are taking care of kids.
“He has seen a number of families, as I have, in Appalachia and everywhere I guess, where parents couldn’t take care of their kids and grandparents stepped in,” Brown told me. “A work requirement makes no sense for grandparents.”
“Then he emphasized that the money should follow the child, which of course it should,” Brown continued. “I think he was listening.” (Politico first reported a bit about Brown’s objection to Manchin’s stance.)
Obviously West Virginia is much redder than Ohio. But this contrast is striking. Manchin goes to great lengths to demonstrate his vast ideological differences with Washington liberals, while Brown wraps his progressivism in labor-friendly, populist, common-sense appeals.
On the child tax credit Manchin wants means testing and work requirements while warning of becoming an “entitlement society.” This slaps an old culturally-charged stereotype — invoking the specter of welfare programs that sap incentive to work and primarily benefit urban underclasses — on a policy that delivers disproportionate benefits to red, non-metro America, in terms of cutting child poverty and in boosting purchasing power, demand and opportunity.
At its core, Manchin’s is a zero-sum approach. By contrast, Brown talks about the expanded child tax credit as an empowering policy. This syncs with his longtime approach of stressing the dignity of work, which tends to eschew punitive cultural appeals for more positive-sum ones that centralize respect for people struggling with difficult situations.
In the context of the child tax credit debate, a work requirement is an affront to such conceptions of dignity and respect for work. “A work requirement is absurd to someone like him who understands that raising kids is work,” Justin Barasky, a longtime adviser to Brown, told me.
For Brown, such appeals are workable in tough political territory for Democrats. While Brown stressed that he isn’t questioning how Manchin — or anyone else — campaigns, Brown said on the Senate floor Tuesday that embracing a robust child tax credit signals to GOP voters “that you’re on the side of workers.”
That, of course, is what “entitlement society” type appeals are also supposed to accomplish. But those are needlessly divisive, contemptuous toward people’s real world struggles, and at their worst, racially demagogic.
As Brown notes, if the expanded child tax credit is renewed, it will likely expire in 2024 or 2025. He told me Democrats should say to voters: “Who do you trust on the tax credit? Do you trust Republicans who all voted against it? Or do you trust Democrats who created it and ask for its extension?”
We’re currently having a big debate over how Democrats should calibrate appeals to working class voters. But as Brian Beutler says, people like Brown have demonstrated that hyper-targeted policy messaging is far less important than going for broader strokes, by creating political brands built around a "mix of working-class bromides, ethical conduct, and outsider positioning.”
In Brown’s handling of it, the child tax credit debate seems like a way to test that big picture proposition — while also getting a big and very consequential policy question right.