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Dealing with Manchin and Sinema

Senators Manchin and Sinema scaled back Biden’s popular proposals. What could be done?

In the short run people have been yelling for Biden to give both senators hell, and tell ‘em what’s what, to tell them what we would like to hear. Politics doesn’t work like that – Hillary tried to warn West Virginians that coal wasn’t coming back and offer a better path but they couldn’t see it.

In the short run, getting “tough” or angering Manchin or Sinema could tempt either of them to caucus with or join McConnell and the Republicans. That would be disaster for Biden and the Democrats. So the short run had to be about working with the holdouts for a mutually beneficial deal. It hasn’t been pretty but bless President Biden for trying.

The long run is about the voters, not the Senators, in both states. I’ve only visited Arizona but I lived in West Virginia in the 1970s. I knew miners who told me what a good job it was, meaning that it paid well and allowed them to start or take care of their families. Anything and everything to do with coal, mining, strip-mining, black lung disease, and jobs, jobs, jobs rankles West Virginia politics.

They had a strong union helping guide their political choices. Since then, unions have been undercut and those who work with their hands are much more on their own. Miners’ struggles are enormous. The movement away from coal by both private and public entities undercut their jobs and it’s become clear it isn’t going to be reversed. Meanwhile, the mountains have been strip mined, the soil torn off to get at the coal underneath. Natural breaks, trees and vegetation that protected West Virginians from floods are gone. West Virginia is a land of sharp gorges and ravines. When the rain comes, torrents of water rip out dams, homes, villages and the people in them. Coal was not an unalloyed blessing. But West Virginians have difficulty seeing a future in the world without coal. Many stay fiercely devoted to the failing communities they grew up in.

In a narrowly divided Senate, individual senators wield a lot of power to get what they want. Great American lawgivers learned to share benefits by building projects everywhere. Efficiency is irrelevant for people about to be bypassed. We’ve often had to make everyone winners so we could get things done: communal rivalries delayed the Erie Canal for decades; mass transit is more efficient than highways, but do they pick you up at your front door?

If the issue were new jobs for people who used to mine coal, Biden and Schumer could give Manchin and West Virginia what they need, and many of us would cheer. What Manchin is actually doing looks counterproductive for the people there.

But in the long run, it’s possible to build significant primary challenges like the Tea Party did with Republicans they found unsatisfying. That means looking for or building groups working toward such challenges on principles better suited to the needs of the people in those states. It’s slower and it is a gamble, but if you want to get tough with Manchin and Sinema, that’s the route.

By the way, I voted. Did you?

Steve Gottlieb’s latest book is Unfit for Democracy: The Roberts Court and The Breakdown of American Politics. He is the Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Albany Law School, served on the New York Civil Liberties Union board, on the New York Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, and as a US Peace Corps Volunteer in Iran.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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