More Than Manchin

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The political spotlight shines brightly on Joe Manchin, the Democratic senator from West Virginia, and for good reason. To begin with, he clearly relishes the attention, brought on by his ability to have the fate of President Biden’s legislative agenda subject to his whim. The nature of a 50-50 Senate is that any one senator could play the spoiler on any given bill, but for the most part the Democratic caucus seems remarkably united on a wide range of hot button issues. That is, except for Manchin and to a lesser extent his partner in frustration, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona. 

Many have spent hours on cable TV or hundreds of column inches in newspapers speculating on Manchin’s motives, and whether his plea for bipartisanship is sincere. People have tried to analyze his personality, peer into his biography, or read the tea leaves of his many public utterances. Is he playing both sides? What does he really believe? For reporters, the Congressional beat is increasingly the Manchin beat. All this makes sense, but it is also a bit beside the point. Manchin is a story, but he is also a symbol of a much deeper rot in Washington, a distraction from a lot of what is really taking place. 

When Manchin talks about good-faith bipartisanship, I understand why it invokes eye rolls and exasperated sighs. Is he that naive, the argument goes. Has he not seen how the Republicans have operated, especially under the cynical, disingenuous, and destructive leadership of Mitch McConnell? Does he not recognize that the United States is facing an existential threat to its democracy around voting rights? Is he not outraged that we are not going to have a commission on the insurrection of January 6? All of these are fair questions. All of these paint a clear picture of what is taking place today in Washington. 

At the same time, I also understand the Washington to which Manchin alludes. I remember when Republicans and Democrats worked together on big bills. I was covering the Nixon White House when Republican senators told him it was time to step down. I saw unlikely friendships and alliances around issues. When it worked, it was inspiring. Just as often, however, the Senate was an impediment to progress. The same forces of comity and goodwill, the “Old Boys Club,” could be a place where the rights and needs of the marginalized and forgotten could be suppressed. 

All of us, particularly those of us who are old enough to have hazy, sentimentalized memories of the more distant past, must fight against the urge to view history through rose colored glasses. We must not shrink from addressing the needs of the present. Our focus must be on what we want our nation to be, not holding on to our nation as we think it was. Yet we are also still human, and the power of our roots, of the past, of our own journeys, is strong and alluring. 

With all this in mind, it is all the more striking that thinking about eliminating or at least reforming the filibuster has become a mainstream viewpoint in the Democratic Party. I would hazard that even a few years ago, you would have been hard pressed to get anywhere near the support you see today. It’s a sign of how dire things have become. 

I will avoid going into too great detail about the filibuster. Many have written about it with far more scholarship and acumen than I can muster. But we must remember that it is not in the Constitution and that it was often a tool for segregationists. It was used with relative rarity until our modern political times. And it has been wielded by Senator McConnell to basically make Congress unworkable. 

To me, that is the biggest story. We are struggling with a government that systematically cannot legislate. The filibuster is the tool for suppressing majority rule but the reason it has become so powerful and ubiquitous has a lot more to do with the Republicans wielding it than with Manchin who won’t get rid of it.  We have more and more members of the Republican caucus who want to be elected, not to solve the nation’s problems, but to get a launch pad for Fox News glory and the power and money they can get from building personal brands of outrage. So yes the press should cover Manchin, but they should also ask each of the Republican senators why they support the Big Lie, why most of them won’t investigate 1/6, what they want to do about our failing infrastructure, our worsening climate, the pandemic, or any of the serious issues that we are not confronting. 

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We have a political party that is being radicalized against democracy, and the truth. They would rather talk about Dr. Seuss or the latest utterance of some Democratic lawmaker taken out of context and weaponized for countless segments on right-wing media than talk about bills. The old question of “how does a bill become a law” might as well be sent to a museum. Does Manchin play a role in this? Yes. But again, he is not the major actor. 

By focusing so much attention on Manchin we are not presenting the full narrative to the American people. The press is framing this as a fight within the Democratic Party. That lets Republicans waltz by the microphones and cameras without paying nearly enough of a political price for their cynicism and obstructionism. 

I have said many times that I believe our national government has been based on two strong political parties competing for votes in the marketplace of ideas. I still believe that is the strongest manifestation of our political system. But I recognize that is not what we have now. The only way we can restore that order is to figure out how to foster action in government. And for now, the desire for action rests within the Democratic Party. The Republicans want power, to be sure, but to what end? It doesn’t seem in service to the needs of the nation. 

I know to paint it in such stark terms is to risk being branded as biased. And I certainly have the scars to show that. But I do not see this as a matter of politics. Because politics without policy is a form of tyranny. It’s the abuse of power in service to the benefit of the few over the needs of the nation. It is privilege over justice. 

This is how our democracy is being eaten away from within. It amplifies a suite of injustices, such as tax laws heavily weighted in favor of the super wealthy, and the dramatic income inequality that produces, as well as a campaign finance system fueled by opaque dark money that corrupts many office holders in both parties. These forces are heavily invested in maintaining a broken status quo. Until and unless these realities are reversed, the survival of our country as we have known and loved it will remain in peril.

—Dan & Steady Team

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