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Opinion Sen. Joe Manchin’s position on Build Back Better reflects the reality of West Virginia politics

Lawmakers respond to Sen. Joe Manchin III (D- W.Va.) saying he ‘cannot vote’ for Democrats’ social and climate spending bill on Dec. 19. (Video: The Washington Post)

“I’ve always said, ‘If I can’t go back home and explain it, I can’t vote for it.’”

That is how Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) explained his announcement Sunday that he “cannot vote” for the hallmark of his party’s agenda, a transformational $2 trillion measure that would overhaul health care, education, climate initiatives, immigration and the tax code.

Manchin’s decision to pull out of negotiations over the Build Back Better Act is likely to be its death knell in an evenly divided Senate, and more liberal Democrats were quick to say he would pay a political price for it. “He’s going to have a lot of explaining to do to the people of West Virginia,” Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who is managing the legislation, contended on CNN.

Sanders ticked through individual policies within the measure that polling shows are highly popular: negotiating with pharmaceutical companies to lower the price of prescription drugs; providing home health care for the elderly and disabled; expanding Medicare to cover dental care, eyeglasses and hearing aids; raising taxes on the wealthy.

And West Virginia — a state whose residents are older, poorer and sicker than average — would also stand to benefit more than most from the legislation.

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While West Virginians picture themselves as flinty and self-reliant (the state motto is “mountaineers are always free”), they are by at least one significant measure more dependent on government than any other state. As I noted in an October column, statistics compiled by the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Economic Analysis show that about 32 percent of West Virginians’ personal income last year came in the form of transfer payments — that is, government checks that include retirement and disability benefits, medical benefits, welfare payments, veterans benefits, unemployment compensation, and education and training assistance. Mississippi comes in second at just under 30 percent.

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But to suggest that Manchin is misreading the politics of his state is simply wrong.

West Virginia was until relatively recently among the most reliably blue states in the country — one of only a handful that Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis managed to carry in 1988, when he was defeated in an electoral college landslide. As late as the 1990s, West Virginia’s congressional delegation was entirely Democratic.

Although it wasn’t clearly recognized at the time, a turning point in West Virginia politics came in the 2000 election, when George W. Bush became the first non-incumbent Republican nominee to win the state since 1928. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the Democratic standard-bearer, then-Vice President Al Gore, who was viewed by West Virginians as an extremist on guns and the environment, lost its five electoral votes, which would have given him the presidency. Each Democratic nominee since, with a narrow exception for President Biden, has done successively worse in West Virginia.

Last year, Donald Trump won nearly 69 percent of the Mountain State vote — a stronger showing than he made in any other state but Wyoming.

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Partisan tribalism, cultural issues and an attachment to the vanishing coal industry drive voter sentiment there, creating what is a paradoxical hostility to government. “Washington’s 100 percent against us,” a man from Summers County told me years ago. “They don’t like our jobs. They don’t like our attitudes.” Those attitudes have only hardened.

Manchin, who is also a former governor, is probably the only Democrat alive who would have a prayer these days of winning statewide. And the fact is, if he were not around, Republicans would hold a Senate majority. As Manchin himself has pointed out, if his party wants a bigger spending package, it should do a better job of electing liberals.

After Manchin announced Sunday that he “cannot vote to move forward on this mammoth piece of legislation,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki indicated — in an overall blistering statement — that the president’s team will try to nudge him back into negotiations. It is possible to see a scenario in which Manchin might support some of the legislation’s core provisions that go directly into working-class pockets, such as the child tax credit, in exchange for jettisoning others, such as its ambitious climate initiatives, which would move the country away from dirty energy sources such as coal.

Ultimately, Manchin knows better than liberal naysayers that this legislation — or anything else that carries the Democratic brand — will face skepticism in West Virginia that has little to do with its merits. But he is also well aware that government has a vital role when it comes to bettering the lives and futures of his constituents. Which means things might not be over yet for some version of the Build Back Better bill.