Joe Biden is not going to have himself a merry little Christmas.
Not after a fellow Democrat who controls the destiny of the U.S. President’s signature social-policy measure pulled his support from the legislation Sunday.
The man who stole Mr. Biden’s Christmas is Senator Joe Manchin. That’s because in a Senate evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, even a single defection from Mr. Biden’s party is enough to sink the entire US$2-trillion policy.
For the President, it’s not a happy holidays without Mr. Manchin’s support. The legislation reached its apparent death after months of negotiations between Mr. Manchin and the White House, with the final indignity coming as the West Virginia lawmaker announced his desertion from the rest of his party on the conservative Fox News network that has been a consistent supporter of Donald Trump.
“I cannot vote to continue with this piece of legislation,” Mr. Manchin said. “I’ve tried everything humanly possible. I can’t get there. This is a no.”
The White House, too, tried everything possible, trimming the breadth and depth of the legislation, even making concessions on energy that troubled the progressive wing of the Democratic Party and shaved away other elements of the President’s climate-change offensive. Mr. Manchin’s state is the second-leading producer of coal in the country, accounting for about one-eighth of American coal mining. The 43,875 people who worked in West Virginia coal mining in 1971 now has been trimmed to 14,780.
The Manchin remarks accounted for a Christmas-week blow to Mr. Biden, a preternaturally optimistic figure whose family revels in Yuletide traditions, including employing a hand mixer to stir Ivory Snow powder with water to produce a white Christmas, at least around the tree in their Delaware home, and applying strands of tinsel one at a time.
Indeed, until Mr. Manchin doused Mr. Biden’s hopes – in a measure Republicans inevitably considered a Christmas tree of special favours and liberal excesses – the President had high expectations that the second line of the Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas anthem might apply to him, and to the country:
“Let your heart be light/Next year all our troubles will be out of sight.”
That song, first made famous by Judy Garland and then modified by Frank Sinatra, was written in 1943, about two years after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that drew the United States into the Second World War. Mr. Biden’s hopes for his social-policy bill vanished about the same amount of time into the coronavirus pandemic – about two years. Though the lyrics of the song have been adjusted over the years, they speak of “happy golden days of yore.”
Such happy golden days in American politics – including the days when Mr. Biden, then a senator, worked with moderates of both parties – have disappeared. The six-term lawmaker was a partisan, to be sure, but he forged several alliances with Republicans, including some whose views he found repugnant, among them segregationists who were powerful figures during his 36 years on Capitol Hill.
Mr. Manchin, who in earlier negotiations was able to persuade the White House to cut the cost of the bill by about half, was not the only key figure in the Biden calculus. Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona also expressed grave doubts, especially about a hike in corporate tax rates.
There were, moreover, other parliamentary obstacles, including a future decision by the Senate parliamentarian over what could be included in the measure to conform with the chamber’s arcane rules.
But Mr. Manchin has been the central figure from the start, drawing the skepticism, then the enmity and, now, the resentment of many fellow Democrats. And until Sunday morning, he was merely a friendly irritant to the Biden White House and, in better days, a friend of the President.
“I have tried everything I know how to do,” Mr. Manchin said in his remarks on Fox News Sunday. “And the President has worked diligently. He’s been wonderful to work with. He knows I’ve had concerns and the problems I’ve had.”
That was at odds with the White House view. “If his comments on FOX and written statement indicate an end to that effort,”” said Biden press secretary Jen Psaki, “they represent a sudden and inexplicable reversal in his position, and a breach of his commitments to the President and the senator’s colleagues in the House and Senate.”
Moments after Mr. Manchin made his announcement, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, the two-time presidential candidate and leader of Senate progressives, said on CNN’s State of the Union, that Mr. Manchin would have “a lot of explaining to do to the people of West Virginia.”
That probably overstates the case, for Mr. Manchin is a reliable barometer of the political pressures in his home state – and his remarks Sunday reflect the changes in West Virginia politics in the past third of a century and political transformations that explain both his posture and broader, dramatic changes in American politics.
In 1988, when Michael Dukakis was the Democratic presidential nominee, the Massachusetts governor carried West Virginia by nearly 5 percentage points. In 2012, onetime Republican Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney carried West Virginia by 27 percentage points. Last year, Mr. Trump won West Virginia by 39 percentage points. Mr. Manchin, who has served in the state legislature, as West Virginia secretary of state, and as governor, has lived through the changes in his state’s political profile.
After his television appearance, the Senator’s office released a statement saying, “I have always said, ‘If I can’t go back home and explain it, I can’t vote for it.’ Despite my best efforts, I cannot explain the sweeping Build Back Better Act in West Virginia and I cannot vote to move forward on this massive piece of legislation.”
Though all Mr. Biden wanted for Christmas were two votes from Mr. Manchin and Ms. Sinema, it’s a blue Christmas without them and it’s the Republicans who are rockin’ around the Christmas tree.