As the summer of 2021 comes to an ignominious end this week, millions of Americans will remember these blazing hot months as a time of dashed hopes on ending our life-altering pandemic and growing alarm about the floods and fires fueled by climate change. But in Washington, D.C. — the place where solving these problems needs to start in the U.S. — both the hellish season and what it might mean for future generations will be recalled as “Almost Heaven,” the well-equipped houseboat owned by West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin where the nation’s leaders spent a moonshine-soaked summer lazily floating past the crises.
The Washington Post recently revealed the Democratic senator’s pricey vessel as the place where Manchin “has found himself in the captain’s seat for much of what gets done, or doesn’t get done, in Washington” — with the Senate divided 50-50 and an agenda to save America’s middle class hanging by frayed slipknot. Manchin’s large houseboat that is “somewhere between a trawler and a yacht, big and boxy,” the Post reports, has been a hot spot — both for Democratic and Republican senators and President Biden’s cabinet secretaries to forget their bitter partisan differences over free-flowing beer, and also possibly for COVID-19, after South Carolina GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham said he might have infected guests there.
“There’s no ‘parties,’” Manchin — wearing a bandage on his forehead that he swore was caused by bending over to fix a sink on the Almost Heaven (for non-boomers, a reference to the famous John Denver lyric about West Virginia) — told the newspaper. Attendees like Delaware Democratic Sen. Chris Coons insist that gatherings have been great for fostering working relationships, that the $1 trillion infrastructure plan passed by the Senate with 17 GOP votes “probably would have fallen apart” if not for the “cookouts” on, or in, Almost Heaven.
But with autumn closing in, Washington seems hopelessly adrift on Biden’s ambitious plans for working families and fighting climate change, and any forward progress will likely depend on what comes out of Manchin’s bandaged brain in the coming weeks. In a slew of TV appearances, the West Virginian has made it clear he will use his deciding vote in the 50-50 Senate to shrink Biden’s plan from $350 billion a year to only $100 billion to $150 billion — he’s failed to truly articulate why — and he’s also managed to downsize the ambitions of a do-or-die-for-democracy voting-rights bill, even as he insists (for now) he won’t end the filibuster to pass even that. Whatever happened on that houseboat, the brief chance to end American kleptocracy may be sinking.
Indeed, analyzing Manchin and his motives — both politically and psychologically — has become something of a cottage industry in the nation’s capital. I’ve already written about how Manchin’s pro-billionaire austerity politics are wildly out of step with the real-world needs of voters in poverty-plagued West Virginia, suffering from pothole-laced highways, climate-worsened floods, and opioid abuse. Instead, the senator and former governor sees promoting his personal brand as his path to winning elections and wielding power.
No ideological label explains what Manchin has been doing this summer. He’s not even a political centrist. He’s a self-centrist — measuring his worth less on how much bacon he brings back to almost-heaven West Virginia and more on his number of hits on MSNBC’s Morning Joe. In recent days, the take-down in neighboring Virginia of the post-Confederacy statue of Robert E. Lee was a reminder of a nation’s ever-changing iconography. If America ever wants to memorialize the 2020s, we should build a monument to Manchin’s massive ego.
James Downie recently took down Manchin’s politics of the self in the Washington Post, writing that “he described his concerns about West Virginia’s economy as ‘I can’t lose one job. I don’t have one to spare,’ as though his Senate office is the state’s employment center.” But Manchin isn’t really unique — just an extreme example of the political careerism that’s made far too many in Washington savvier about catering to their own needs than those of the voters. This West Virginian embodies most of the deadly sins of modern politics, including:
Greed. Manchin boasts that he’s put all of his considerable business holdings into a blind trust in order to not affect his politics, but the senator is not too blind to see that zealously pro-business, anti-tax, and — most important — anti-environment policies are boosting his multimillion-dollar portfolio. The Intercept reported earlier this month that since entering the Senate Manchin has personally grossed more than $4.5 million from coal companies that he founded in the 1980s and are run by his son — even as he holds the deciding vote on Biden’s plan to wean America off fossil fuels.
Sloth. Still, Manchin knows he can’t keep millionaire taxes low all by himself, so he works closely with a network of pro-business lobbyists. The senator is trying to deny the tape-recorded comments of an ExxonMobil lobbyist who claimed he speaks regularly with Manchin’s office. But he did lash out at the “far left” in a recent phone call with billionaire donors, and his passionate embrace of austerity is surely pleasing to the right-wing Koch network, which has been currying favor with the senator, or the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, whose political action committee recently gave to both Manchin and his political soullessness-mate, Arizona Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema.
Pride. In what’s probably just a coincidence (right?), Manchin’s kids have also done very well during their dad’s political career. That includes his daughter Heather Bresch — the former CEO of the pharmaceutical firm Mylan, which had to pay the U.S. Justice Department $465 million for overcharging Medicaid for anti-allergy EpiPens, a controversy that Manchin never weighed in on. When Manchin was West Virginia governor, a reporter covering Bresch’s promotion at Mylan learned she didn’t have the M.B.A. degree listed on her resumé, but somehow West Virginia University officials came up with not just an explanation to suddenly hand her a sheepskin but grades for unfinished courses were pulled out of thin air. Ultimately, the university president, provost, and business school dean resigned, but nothing bad happened to Bresch or to Manchin. That kind of outcome happens a lot.
In the present political crisis, it seems clear that Manchin is spouting austerity jargon largely to achieve the Chamber of Commerce’s goal of not substantially changing the federal tax framework that’s grossly tilted toward millionaires, billionaires, and large corporations — a goal that presumably means denying his constituents in West Virginia things like free community college or expanded child care.
On the voting-rights crisis, Manchin is now leading the effort for a compromise — not surprising, since GOP suppression laws could cost Democrats control of Congress, stripping Manchin of his almost magical powers — that would take out the parts that most offend big business like restrictions on dark money. Whether Manchin also agrees to at least modify if not ditch the filibuster — almost surely the only route to passing any reform — is a drama guaranteed to keep the hot camera lights focused on Manchin all fall, which must make him ecstatic.
What can progressives — who see Manchin (and Sinema) as the final roadblocks to radical reforms of our faltering democracy and economic system — do? The Manchin problem means the left will never got everything it wants in this session of Congress, so it’s imperative that forward-looking voters and top Democrats move him as far as they can — to convince him that a $200 billion- to $250 billion-a-year budget hike and the most expansive voting bill possible aren’t just good for the country, but that middle-class progress would be good, personally, for Joe Manchin.
After 2022, the only way for the United States to get where it wants to go is not through Joe Manchin and his tired political hackery, but around him. West Virginia may be a very Trumped-up place right now, but voters here in Pennsylvania, as well as Ohio, Wisconsin, and other key states, will get a shot next fall to build a Senate majority that is actually controlled by Democrats and not the Chamber of Commerce. Metaphorically speaking, we need an infrastructure bill with a 10-lane superhighway of American progress, that bypasses West Virginia altogether.
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