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Manchin hits back at effort to ‘badger’ him, reinforcing Democrats’ gamble

Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) said on Fox News on Dec. 19 that after lengthy negotiations, he “is a no” on President Biden’s domestic policy bill. (Video: Fox News)

Democrats finally had their Joe Manchin III Catharsis Moment on Sunday, kicking off with the White House sending out a blistering statement on the West Virginia senator’s apparent death blow to President Biden’s Build Back Better social-spending bill.

The lengthy, detailed statement effectively accused Manchin of not being an honest partner in the process. It was joined in by other Democrats excoriating Manchin in much the same terms. Some echoed Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-Vt.) weird talking point suggesting it was unthinkable that one Democratic senator could stand in their way. Liberal U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) declared Manchin to have “betrayed his commitment” to the American people. Even the often-diplomatic Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.) said Manchin’s move was “a sharp departure from what he was saying to many of his colleagues and to the president, just this week.”

It’s clear there are some legitimately hard feelings here, after a long and arduous process came to what appears to be an end — at least for the foreseeable future. But there’s often a massive difference between saying what you think and doing what’s strategically sound. And it’s not at all clear it’s the latter right now.

The Democrats’ problem with Manchin has long been that they need him significantly more than he needs them, which means they have precious little leverage — which many don’t want to acknowledge. He comes from the second-reddest state in the 2020 election, with West Virginia having gone for Donald Trump by 39 points. Democrats already have the barest of majorities, with 50 votes and Vice President Harris serving as tiebreaker. Their 50th vote being a West Virginia Democrat makes that majority even barer, practically speaking.

So they have often treated him with kid gloves — at least at the official level. (To be clear, the base has been deriding Manchin for the better part of the year, mostly because of his opposition to scrapping the filibuster. But the rest seemed to recognize the situation for what it was, at least until Sunday.)

The question is why that calculus changed and what that means, especially moving forward — which might not be as insignificant as some might think in the heat of the moment.

To the extent that what we saw Sunday was a strategic effort, it seems Democrats have largely a) given up on passing significant legislation before the 2022 midterms; and/or b) decided a gentler approach to Manchin just wasn’t working. If nothing else worked to pass Build Back Better or a voting rights bill, why not try to threaten Manchin with villainhood? Even if passing Biden’s agenda isn’t popular in West Virginia, perhaps — the logic would suggest — Manchin would prefer not to be known as the guy who torpedoed his party’s hopes in the coming elections?

Manchin, though, has shown very little regard for how his decisions are perceived in the broader national party. A YouGov poll in October showed just 13 percent of 2020 Biden voters viewed him favorably, compared with 62 percent who viewed him unfavorably. If Democrats are trying to make Manchin a villain in the party, that’s been the case for a while — with little sign of him being particularly bothered about it.

And Manchin doubled down Monday, telling Hoppy Kercheval of West Virginia’s MetroNews that opponents seeking to “badger” him won’t work.

“I knew what they could and could not do. They just never realized it, because they figured: ‘Surely to God, we can move one person. Surely we can badger and beat one person up. Surely we can get enough protesters to make that person uncomfortable enough,’” Manchin said. He added: “Well guess what: I’m from West Virginia. I’m not from where they’re from. And they can just beat the living crap out of people and think they’ll be submissive, period.”

The real problem for Democrats is not necessarily what this means for Build Back Better, but for other key priorities that don’t involve huge spending and for which he could reasonably be expected to be on board. Those include the voting rights bill, the potentially related filibuster changes and, perhaps most crucially, a probable Supreme Court vacancy.

Manchin has taken a lead role in trying to find a voting rights compromise, which he suggested Sunday he was still focused on, even as he condemned Build Back Better. And while it has never appeared probable that the voting rights bill would pass, you have to wonder how much appetite he has for it — especially as many high-profile Democrats have signaled that it’s now a bigger priority than Build Back Better.

The most consequential one is a potential Supreme Court vacancy. Again, it’s not clear that turning Manchin into the boogeyman for the Democratic agenda will harm the party, but it must be considered. Justice Stephen G. Breyer has thus far resisted calls for him to step aside, including in 2021 when it would make the most sense if he wants to avoid the court moving further to the right. But Breyer has suggested that’s at least a probable part of his calculus.

Imagine a scenario in 2022 in which Breyer retires and Manchin is (again) the crucial 50th vote on confirming his replacement. Even if Manchin wouldn’t have left the Democratic Party altogether — which he has downplayed but also has said he offered to do if he became a headache for the party (Manchin downplayed this again Monday, saying, “I think I still represent the centrist, moderate wing of the Democratic Party”) — what happens if that same senator insists on a more moderate nominee or scrutinizes a more liberal nominee who is put forward?

If you asked Democrats to pick whether Manchin would support Build Back Better or a Biden Supreme Court nomination, it seems very probable they’d choose the latter. And while the latter might not be in the balance in the coming year, it’s an eventuality that has to be considered in all of this.

One of the things that truly worked for Biden in the 2020 campaign was disregarding the debates that were taking place among the most passionate liberals in the party, particularly on social media. Sunday’s response aligned with that portion of the party. Even if it wasn’t intended as such, it’s playing a similar game. Maybe Build Back Better wasn’t going to pass, and maybe giving Manchin a taste of what it’s like to be the villain will be somewhat compelling to him (despite his protestation Monday). But it’s difficult to bet on that, and bigger battles might lie ahead.