Build Back Better was doomed from the start

20 December 2021

7:01 AM

20 December 2021

7:01 AM

Joe Manchin was never going to vote for Build Back Better. Now that he’s declared himself a “no” and all but killed President Biden’s titanic spending package, it’s time for Democrats to admit as much.

To be sure, Manchin has played well the role of centrist negotiator. He’s furrowed his brow and raised pragmatic concerns over renewable energy and inflation. He’s huddled with his fellow Joe at the White House and won plenty of concessions. He’s provided chum for bored (and boring) political analysts, as analyzing him and his fellow holdout Kyrsten Sinema became a kind of Kremlinology for the Twitter-addicted.

But such breathless parsing forgets one simple fact: all politics is local. And while Manchin is a Democrat and a centrist — the terms Washington prefers to understand him in — he’s also a West Virginian. He comes from the nation’s fifth-largest energy-producing state, one that is existentially threatened by the shift away from fossil fuels. There is a direct link between coal and the West Virginia poor. The state also has a significant reserve of natural gas, the nation’s third richest.

Manchin knows this well. He sees the dire forecasts for West Virginia as coal is phased out. And he doesn’t want to do anything that’s going to sharpen that pain. When anti-fossil fuel cap-and-trade legislation was slithering through Congress a decade ago, Manchin ran an ad in which he literally shot the bill with a rifle. (That, by the way, might be the only good argument I’ve ever heard for Supreme Court elections. Picture Clarence Thomas blowing a hole in the Roe v. Wade opinion and tell me that isn’t something this nation should see.)

BBB, admittedly, is no cap-and-trade, but its ultimate end is the same: to transition the energy grid away from coal and natural gas. Given that Manchin represents those who work in those industries, and given that Democrats seem indifferent towards such workers in favor of (conveniently California-heavy) green jobs, the fix was always in. Constituency always trumps ideology. That’s why Senator Elizabeth Warren’s crusading wrath against Big Pharma regularly finds exceptions in the medical device companies based in her native Massachusetts.

It didn’t matter that some of the more extreme BBB provisions were stripped out. It didn’t matter that the ludicrously high price tag was slashed. Jen Psaki can sputter and foam all she likes, accusing Manchin of going back on his word. But she can’t change the geography of the United States or the makeup of the US Senate. Even a sharp tweet from that noted genius Ron Klain cannot accomplish that.

It ranks as one of Democrats’ greatest failures that they never sought to understand why Donald Trump’s message really resonated in Appalachia. There are many reasons, of course, but one is this: he pledged to protect fracking and reopen the mines. Perhaps the good people of West Virginia knew this was only a campaign promise. Perhaps they were leery of Trump personally. But at least he was speaking to them, identifying with their struggles and pledging change. As opposed to today’s Democrats, who barrel onward towards a “clean” energy future without ever considering the human costs of such a shift.

Now they’re suffering the blowback. As for Manchin, he’s in a difficult spot, caught between party grandees on one side and the voters he must protect on the other. But really, man, it’s time. Get the Build Back Better text, get the .30-06, and let’s be done with this already.

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