In “The Hollow Men,” poet T. S. Eliot wrote that the world would end not with a bang but a whimper. To much of the left, their world (for the time being, anyway) ended Sunday morning on a Fox News soundstage.
Appearing on “Fox News Sunday,” Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, indicated he could not support the multi-trillion-dollar spending plan President Biden and congressional Democrats had spent the second half of this year working to enact.
“I cannot vote to continue with this piece of legislation. I just can’t. I’ve tried everything humanly possible. I can’t get there….This is a no on this legislation. I have tried everything I know to do,” Manchin said.
Procedurally, Manchin’s comments carry no official weight. Democrats could still work to rewrite the legislation to meet his concerns and resurrect its chances for passage, much as they did with Obamacare following the shock election of Republican Scott Brown to Massachusetts’ U.S. Senate seat in January 2010.
But tonally, it feels like the end of the road, with Manchin speaking in a resigned, even deflated tone, much more in sorrow than in anger. If he could not bring himself to support the legislation after nearly six months of negotiations and deliberations, it seems unlikely that anyone or anything could get him to “yes.”
If Manchin’s comments signify the end of the road for this legislative package, it would then turn attention to the two individuals most responsible for its failure. These two individuals, each in the twilight of his and her career, trying to capture long-lost legislative goals and failing spectacularly, suggest the death of a graying, exhausted Old Guard within Washington—to be replaced by what, we know not.
Misread an Election for a Mandate
The first individual who compiled this menagerie of a legislative agenda currently sits in the Oval Office. Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Virginia, told The New York Times last month that “nobody elected” Biden “to be F.D.R., they elected him to be normal and stop the chaos.” But until the setbacks of recent weeks, few people within the administration acted as if they got that memo.
Consider that the majorities on which Democrats based their massive legislative agenda stemmed, ironically enough, in no small part from a “Jim Crow relic.” Had Georgia law not required candidates to win a majority of votes to gain election—a legacy of its roots as a solidly Democratic state in the last century—and had Sen. David Perdue, R-Georgia, not come just short of an outright majority last November—due perhaps to mocking Kamala Harris’s name at a campaign event—Jon Ossoff never would have had a chance to defeat Purdue in the January runoff, winning Democrats the slimmest of majorities in the U.S. Senate.
By the time Democrats realized their error in overinterpreting voters’ split decision last fall as a decisive mandate, they had boxed themselves into a corner by inflating expectations wildly beyond reality. As Axios wrote in September, when Democrats were spinning their wheels on a $3.5 trillion legislative package:
President Biden bit off too much, too fast in trying to ram through what would be the largest social expansion in American history, Democrats privately say. At the time Biden proposed it, he had his mind on a transformational accomplishment that would put him in the pantheon of F.D.R. and J.F.K.
Democrats, controlling two branches of government, saw a once-in-a-lifetime opening. In retrospect, some top advisers say this should have been done in smaller chunks. An outside White House adviser said: “Reality is setting in that you can’t pass a $3.5 trillion package. It’s going to get scaled back. The question is whether it can be done this year.”
Except that, between September and December, Democrats really didn’t scale the legislation back. Instead, they just shortened the scale of the programs in the bill, to make it seem as though they would spend less. But a Congressional Budget Office analysis released two weeks ago indicated that extending key programs in the bill for a decade—as Democrats almost certainly want to do—would raise its cost from “only” $2 trillion to nearly $5 trillion.
Forcing a Suicide Vote
Shrinking the price tag—but not the scope—of the bill in October, and bringing it to a vote in the House of Representatives in November, came down to a series of calls by the other major player in this tragicomedy: Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California.
In August, Pelosi had promised to her members that she would “work with House and Senate Democrats to reach agreement in order for the House to vote on a Build Back Better Act that will pass the Senate.” On Nov. 2, several of those moderate members wrote asking her to follow through with her commitment, urging her “to only bring a bill to the floor for which we have a strong level of confidence…will be ruled in order by the Senate parliamentarian and earn passage in the U.S. Senate.”
But with the legislation floundering before Thanksgiving, Pelosi reneged on her summer assurances. She successfully muscled the bill through the House, but Manchin’s opposition has turned that vote into a weight around House Democrats’ necks. They now have all of the downsides of an “aye” vote—supporting tax increases, trillions of new spending, an immigration amnesty, and much more—with no benefits to show for it.
On Saturday, an article in Politico explained how Democrats’ best-case scenario coming out of next year’s congressional elections involved the party holding a narrow minority in the House—one that would put them within reach of recapturing the majority in 2024—and perhaps eking out continued control of the Senate. One day later, following Manchin’s comments, those scenarios seem like pipe dreams, with Pelosi’s decision to frog-march her troops off a cliff last month adding to Democrats’ woes.
End of an Era?
Manchin’s comments suggest both a literal and metaphorical changing of the guard on the horizon. Defeat of a major agenda item would see power continue to drain from the 79-year-old Biden and the 81-year-old Pelosi. The latter has previously indicated she would step down as speaker at the end of this Congress, and rumors continue to swirl about whether the former will run for re-election.
In a broader sense, Manchin’s decision also marks a significant setback for “woke” leftists. In the years since Hillary Clinton’s defeat in 2016, Democrats’ energy has remained with the party’s left, with lawmakers embracing solutions such as single-payer health care that many would not have even considered just a few years previously.
Now, however, reality has begun to set in, with progressives facing both a legislative shutout this Congress, and an electoral wipeout in November that could jeopardize the Democratic agenda for many Congresses to come. What policies and philosophies will replace “woke” progressives—both within the Democratic Party, and amongst conservatives responding to the left—remains to be seen. But it feels like the tectonic plates have begun shifting—against both the socialist agenda, and the geriatric politicians who tried in one last gasp to bring it to fruition.