West Virginia Democrat Sen. Joe Manchin has emerged as the progressives’ new favorite politician to attack. Their frustrations with Manchin are largely fueled by his refusal to both support the For the People Act, a comprehensive voting rights and campaign finance reform bill, and to kill the filibuster, which threatens to undermine President Joe Biden’s efforts to pass any significant legislation.
But their ire is misplaced.
Manchin is a unique political leader whose mere existence in a deep red state defies conventional political logic. In the last presidential election cycle, former President Donald Trump carried West Virginia by almost 40 points. But Manchin understands the politics of his state well. As a US Senate candidate, he — not once, but twice — filmed campaign ads in which he shot a long gun at bills he didn’t think were good for West Virginia, while boasting of his backing from the NRA.
In short, the problem isn’t Manchin. It’s a Democratic Party that is drunk off its own progressive-spiked Kool-Aid, incapable of driving home safely in a world upended after Donald Trump’s presidency.
Many progressives seem to feel that Democrats’ taking control of the executive and legislative branches of government represented some sort of watershed moment in American politics — a wholesale rebuke of Trumpism and a mandate from the American people. Yes, the Joe Biden-Kamala Harris ticket came out on top in 2020, but Trump won over 74 million votes — 11 million more than he received in 2016. Moreover, had just some 45,000 votes gone the other way in Arizona, Georgia, and Wisconsin, Trump would have been reelected to a second term.
As much as Democrats would like to think otherwise, America is not an overwhelmingly progressive country — and wishing doesn’t make it so.
Moreover, what kind of message does it send to conservative Democrats, both voters as well as elected officials, when the party’s top brass — including the President — take turns taking shots at Manchin simply for sticking to his guns? Would they rather Manchin caucus with the Republicans and hand over the US Senate to Minority Leader Mitch McConnell?
Welcome to what it means to have a “Big Tent” party, Democrats — one that can both embrace progressives like Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, as well as moderates like Manchin and Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema.
The real issue is that Democrats — and we put this squarely on the shoulders of Democratic National Committee Chairman Jaime Harrison — have yet to figure out that the future of the party is less like a national party than a federation of 50 state parties, each one doing what they have to do to maintain and/or win power.
For their part, the GOP has already figured that out, which is why, despite having temporarily lost power in Washington, DC, they are enacting their priorities on the state and local level, passing restrictive voting rights legislation, running sham election audits and gerrymandering congressional districts at will. In Georgia, for example, despite voters choosing Biden and sending two Democrats to the US Senate, the GOP-controlled state legislature and Republican governor teamed up to sign into law one of the most aggressive voter suppression laws in the country. And, in Fulton County (home to Atlanta), a judge recently greenlit a recount of some 147,000 mail-in ballots, after the state completed three audits last year.
If Democrats are to have continued success as a viable national coalition, they need to maintain a party — in red states as well as blue states — that is inclusive and welcoming of a much wider array of political viewpoints — even those that might be right of center, as is the case of Manchin.
More important than lambasting Manchin, Democrats should look ahead to the politically perilous 2022 elections and figure out how they can win the purplish parts of the country. Republicans only need to pick up one US Senate seat and five US House of Representative seats to regain control of our two legislative chambers. There is precious little room for error.
Here are three suggestions for Democrats:
1. Table, at least for now, plans of undoing the filibuster. Most Americans have about as much an idea of what the filibuster is as they do about the chemical composition of the Martian atmosphere — which is to say not much. In a recent Monmouth University poll, 34% of Americans had no opinion on the filibuster whatsoever and another 34% approved of it. Even among Democrats in the poll, only 30% wanted it eliminated entirely. So, complaining about the filibuster on what seems a daily basis won’t win Democrats in Washington, DC, many points. Kill the filibuster when you have votes to spare — not when it’s 50-50.
2. Score some major legislative points you can ride into 2022. A field goal isn’t a touchdown, but it’s better than nothing. With Democrats controlling the White House, US House of Representatives and US Senate, Biden, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer must put points on the board by passing legislation that many moderate Republicans will have difficulty voting against. For example, start with a smaller infrastructure bill, such as the one drafted by Manchin and nine senators from both parties. Though the details of this plan are still emerging, it’s clear that one way to win Republicans over is by defining infrastructure the way most Americans understand the term: roads and bridges, the electric grid, broadband and the like. Leave items like workforce development and home care services for another bill — maybe when Democrats have more than 50 senators. Simply put, don’t overstep now by trying to pass a bill with an overly broad definition of 21st-century infrastructure that runs the very real risk of not getting passed at all.
3. Make moderate Republicans sweat. If Manchin will not support the For the People Act, then Democrats should break up the bill into smaller, easy to understand bills, which have broad public support, such as the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which Manchin already supports, and put each of them up for vote in the Senate — concentrating their energy there instead. Force moderate Republicans in the Senate — and especially from swing states — to go on the record time and time again as voting against early voting, same-day registration, and absentee voting — all largely popular measures across the country.
In other words, the Democrats need to spend less time attacking Manchin and more time defining a 2022 strategy that will keep them in power.
Editor’s note: Arick Wierson is a six-time Emmy Award-winning television producer and former senior media adviser to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. He advises corporate and political clients on communications strategies in the US, Africa and Latin America. He tweets at @ArickWierson. Bradley Honan, CEO of Honan Strategy Group, a Democratic polling and analytics firm, has advised the campaigns of Bill and Hillary Clinton, Michael Bloomberg, Tony Blair and leading global companies. He tweets at @BradleyHonan. The views expressed in this commentary are their own.