But Manchin has also clarified the paths that are open to Democrats. The party can now let go of its dreams of sweeping legislative change achieved through repeated 51-vote Senate majorities and instead focus on the realistic options.
Today's newsletter explains those options, broken into short term and long term.
The issues that tend to unite the Democratic Party are economic issues, and Manchin is a good case study. When he breaks with his party, it is typically on issues other than economic policy.
He effectively killed the voting rights bill this week, and he voted for Brett Kavanaugh's Supreme Court confirmation in 2018. Manchin is also well to the right of most congressional Democrats on abortion and gun policy.
Yet he has often stuck with his party on taxes, health insurance, labor unions and other pocketbook issues. Like every other Democrat in the Senate, Manchin voted against both Donald Trump's attempts to repeal Obamacare and the 2017 Trump tax cut that was skewed heavily toward the rich. Earlier this year, Manchin voted for Biden's $1.9 trillion virus rescue bill. Without his vote, that bill would not be law.
On all these issues — economic and otherwise — Manchin's votes tend to reflect the majority opinion of his constituents. West Virginia is a working-class state, and American working-class voters tend to be culturally conservative and economically progressive. Polls show that most favor abortion restrictions, tight border security and well-funded police departments — as well as expanded Medicare and pre-K, a higher minimum wage, federal spending to create jobs and tax increases on the rich.
"Manchin is a pocketbook Democrat, not a social warrior," Carl Hulse, The Times's chief Washington correspondent, told me.
Manchin's support is certainly not guaranteed, partly because he does not like to look partisan. And congressional Republicans seem likely to oppose Biden's upcoming bills, much as they opposed the virus rescue bill and legislation from both Barack Obama and Bill Clinton. The default position of today's Republican Party, with rare exceptions, is unanimous opposition to any bill that a Democratic president proposes.
But Manchin has been willing to provide the deciding vote on economic policy before, even along partisan lines. When he does, he sometimes demands high-profile concessions that burnish his image as a bipartisan figure who's to the right of most Democrats — but that alter the bill in only modest ways, as my colleague Jonathan Martin has noted.
If Manchin had provided the deciding vote for the voting rights bill, it arguably would have been unlike any other vote he had cast in his career. The same would not be true of a vote for the infrastructure bill or the families plan.
People gathered near the Supreme Court yesterday calling for the Senate to pass a voting rights bill.Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters
The Democrats' future
What about the longer term for the Democratic Party? Some Democrats are worried that the lack of a voting rights bill will doom the party to election losses starting in 2022. But that seems like an overstatement.
The voting restrictions being passed by Republican state legislators are worrisomely antidemocratic and partisan in their intent, many election experts say. And they may give Republicans an unfair advantage in very close elections. But it seems likely they will have only a modest impact, as Nate Cohn, who analyzes elections for The Times, has explained. Democrats can still win elections.
Manchin happens to be a useful guide on that topic, too. He has kept winning even as West Virginia has become deeply Republican, by appealing to the state's culturally conservative, economically progressive majority. To varying degrees, some other Democrats from red or purple states, like Senators Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, offer similar lessons. So did Obama, who fared better with working-class voters than many other Democrats.
This approach is the only evident way for Democrats to stem their losses in recent years among working-class voters — and not only among the white working class. A recent analysis of the 2020 election by three Democratic groups argued that the party lost Black, Latino and Asian American support because it did not have a sharp enough economic message. A recent poll by a Republican group found that most Latinos supported both tight border security and "traditional values centered on faith, family and freedom."
As Jason Riley, a Wall Street Journal columnist, wrote this week, "As more college-educated whites have joined the Democratic Party, it has lurched further left, causing discomfort among the more moderate Black, Hispanic, Asian and working-class white Democrats who outnumber them."
One striking aspect of the voting rights debate is how close Democrats came to passing a bill. With only one or two more senators from purple or red states, the party might well be able to defang the filibuster and pass ambitious legislation on a range of issues.
The Democrats' problem isn't so much Joe Manchin as it is the dearth of other senators who are as good at winning tough elections as he is.
Every day, The Morning team and I ask each other how we can help our readers make sense of what's happening in the world — be it about Covid, climate change, the Middle East, President Biden's agenda or any other big story. We try to bring clarity to complex subjects, highlight other fascinating stories that you might have missed and also offer tips on what to cook, watch and do. We're able to do all of this because of The Times's unmatched journalism, which is supported by subscribers. If you've enjoyed this newsletter, I hope you'll consider subscribing. You can do that here.
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