Eric Levitz summarizes the state of play, which boils down to Joe Manchin believing in a lot of bad policy ideas and the some critical election defeats giving the party basically no leverage over him:
If the president ultimately takes that route, it will be because Manchin and his Democratic critics each fell prey to their respective delusions. Put simply, Manchin cannot recognize the intellectual bankruptcy of Clinton-era conceptions of fiscal responsibility, while the Democratic leadership has refused to accept that it has no real leverage over him.
Joe Manchin is a conservative Democrat. As such, he fears deficits, distrusts the poor, champions fossil fuels, and reveres the Pentagon. Manchin believes that the national debt is a threat to our grandchildren; that giving cash aid to the idle poor only encourages lassitude; that an excessively rapid green transition is a bigger threat than climate change; that the United States cannot afford to cut its military spending; and that there is a limit to how much the nation can increase taxes while keeping its business environment “competitive.”
But, being a Democrat, he also believes that the rich should pay higher taxes, the government should modestly expand social services, and Medicare should impose price controls on prescription drugs.
Much of Manchin’s worldview is deluded, classist, and wholly incompatible with meeting the challenges that the United States faces in the present moment. Manchin’s deficit-phobia is premised on basic misunderstandings about the nature of sovereign debt. His fear that providing cash aid to indigent families would only trap them in dependence is rooted in hateful folk wisdom, not actual social science (studies have demonstrated that giving unconditional cash benefits to low-income parents does not significantly depress their labor-force participation, but does improve their kids’ later-life outcomes, in part by increasing their labor-force participation). His stalwart support for ever-higher military budgets is born of a delusional faith in both the wisdom and plausibility of America’s absolute global dominance. His skepticism of green-energy subsidies proceeds from some admixture of his family’s financial interests and his region’s understandable yet destructive nostalgia for a long-dead coal economy.
Still, he is what he is, so the only thing to do now is to try to get the best deal you can get:
Ultimately, the Democratic Party needs Joe Manchin infinitely more than he needs it. Every day that Manchin remains a Democrat is a gift. No one else could have won the 2018 West Virginia Senate race with a “D” next to their name. And while Manchin has served as a conservative Democrat, he has not comported himself as a “Democrat in name only.” Manchin voted for Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan and has served as a rubber stamp for the president’s (historically progressive) judicial appointments and virtually all of the president’s Cabinet nominees.
And he’s reportedly still open to supporting a $1.8 trillion investment in the green transition and social welfare state, so long as he gets to dictate its exact specifications.
The Democratic leadership should try to coax better terms from Manchin. Progressives and labor unions in West Virginia should try to make their voices heard. But if the senator stands pat, his co-partisans should take what they can get.
No one can force Manchin to outgrow his baleful delusions about the national debt and jobless poor. But the White House and its progressive allies can outgrow their rose-colored conception of the balance of power in this negotiation. Perhaps Manchin won’t take yes for an answer, even if Biden takes his fiscal neuroses seriously. But there is only one way to find out.
I remain highly skeptical that a deal can be done, but there’s nothing left to do but try. “Let’s do executive orders instead” is not really an alternative to most of that BBBA is trying to accomplish.