Some 25% of the 65-and-older population in West Virginia need dentures. However, Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, who represents the state in Washington, objects to the inclusion of dental care among the benefits of the Medicare public-private health care system.
First, Manchin demanded that the measure be withdrawn from the Build Back Better plan, the medical care and social services bill that also fights climate change and which President Joe Biden hoped would become his political legacy. And on Sunday, Manchin announced that whatever the White House removed from or added to BBB did not matter. “I can’t vote for it,” Manchin said on the pro-Trump Fox News television network. The Democratic majority in the Senate is so narrow that a single senator of that party refusing to back BBB was enough for it to lose the chance to survive a vote.
Biden had spent 11 months working on that bare majority so as to launch his stimulus plan against COVID-19, get his huge infrastructure plan approved and achieve the confirmation of dozens of left-leaning judges to make up for Donald Trump’s four-year policy of appointing right-leaning judges (in the U.S., the separation of powers carries a very sui generis meaning).
Democrats were achieving everything — until now. Their worst enemy has not been any Republican, but one of their own: Joe Manchin. And Manchin’s accomplice is a Democrat as well: Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, who campaigned around her progressiveness and sexual freedom — she is bisexual — but has not stopped moving to the right since she arrived in the Senate.
In the end, nobody knows the reason behind Manchin’s “no.” Even the people close to the senator recognize that it is a matter of ego. A matter of Manchin feeling that the White House did not respect him enough. Perhaps the spotlight at the center of power, in Washington, can cause temporary blindness in someone representing West Virginia, a state that is the target of cruel jokes throughout the U.S. for its inhabitants’ poverty and lack of education. A state that has never been able to wield any power in the country’s capital.
That is why Manchin’s “no” could tomorrow turn into a “yes.” In the event that the party leaders pressure him and threaten to render him irrelevant, he could always backtrack. This political ballet is less conducted on ideology and more on a music that is power for the sake of power. In fact, yesterday the senator himself started to backpedal, albeit timidly, and started suggesting that he would perhaps support BBB as long as it would once more consider his demands.
The fact that Manchin, who represents the second poorest state in the United States, is able to effortlessly torpedo among his voters a proposal of his own party, designed to help precisely the lowest-income population, reveals that power works in mysterious ways. People vote along identity lines. Voter preference is decided through race, sexual orientation, gender and even accent: working class, from the South, from the West, Appalachian, college student, from the Northwest. West Virginia is a poor, coal-mining state. Therefore, Manchin’s voters oppose the welfare state in which most of them live.
It can be argued that there were more practical reasons for the senator’s opposition, since coal is West Virginia’s livelihood and part of the BBB plan was going toward energy transition. However, as a counterbalance to that idea, the senator had already done away with the provisions of the bill affecting mining in his state. In any case, coal is disappearing in the U.S. — not because of “econazis,” which is what critics have dubbed environmentalists, but because natural gas is cheaper. Furthermore, in the matter of coal, Manchin could have a conflict of interest, since both he and his family are millionaires thanks to their investments in that sector.
Manchin’s decision to do his own thing following six months of direct negotiations with Biden himself — who had even invited him to his Delaware home in October — has driven a brutal wedge in the Democratic Party. Biden, who has tried to keep the group united at all costs, on Sunday tried to persuade the senator not to deliver the death blow to the plan. Manchin refused to get on the phone. The White House reacted with rage, accusing the senator of breaching “his commitments.” Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, whose authority received a possibly irrevocable blow due to Manchin’s insubordination, decided that there will be a BBB vote in January anyway. If Schumer’s intention is to publicly shame Manchin, the latter does not appear to be very concerned about it.