The Morning Jolt

Politics & Policy

Joe Manchin in Command

Thanks to Isaac Schorr for filling in for me yesterday. On the menu today, welcome to the de facto presidency of Joe Manchin; the gang at Politico starts to worry that the Biden presidency is off to a slow start; and in my neck of the woods, public schools take those first little steps toward reopening — with some kindergarteners going to school for the very first time in their lives.

Welcome to the Virtual Joe Manchin Presidency

Earlier this week, Politico offered a curious categorization in one of their headlines: “‘A double standard going on’: Democrats accuse GOP and Manchin of bias on Biden nominations

I suspect we’ll be seeing the “GOP and Manchin” lumped together a lot in the coming months.

The objection from Democratic special-interest organizations is West Virginia Democratic senator Joe Manchin’s opposition to Neera Tanden becoming the next director of the Office of Management and Budget . . . and his declaration that he was undecided on Deb Haaland’s nomination for interior secretary. Oh, and our John McCormack had the scoop that Manchin is still making up his mind about whether or not to vote to confirm Xavier Becerra as secretary of health and human services. Oh, and Manchin’s not sure whether he’ll support Vivek H. Murthy’s nomination to be the next surgeon general.

Maybe Biden should have just run his cabinet choices past Manchin before announcing them.

The West Virginia Democrat isn’t just defecting from the rest of his party on personnel choices. He has assured Mitch McConnell that he won’t vote to eliminate the filibuster for legislation. He’s pushed to shrink the size of stimulus checks in the upcoming coronavirus-relief package, and he’s probably going to end up ensuring that a federal minimum wage of $15 per hour doesn’t end up in the package. Manchin said he’s willing to raise it to $11 in two years. With Manchin chairing the Senate Energy Committee, it is extremely unlikely that he will allow regulations that harm his home state’s coal industry to pass.

Welcome to life with a 50–50 Senate, progressives, where the least liberal Democratic senators and the least conservative Republican senators in the chamber get to decide what gets done. Progressives can be irked, but they should not be surprised if they’ve studied any histor— oh, wait, there’s the problem.

Rallying outside Manchin’s office is not likely to change Manchin’s mind, progressives. He’s 73 years old. He first won a state legislative seat in 1982, and he won his statewide office as secretary of state in 2000. He won the governor’s races in 2004 and 2008 by wide margins, won election to the Senate in 2010, won by a wide margin in 2012, and won by a relatively close margin in 2018. He’s not up for reelection until 2024, when he’ll be 76. Manchin’s predecessor, Robert Byrd, served until he died at age 92. West Virginia doesn’t throw out incumbents very often.

Both progressives and conservatives tend to overestimate Manchin’s deviation from his party because they remember the high-profile examples — such as the Brett Kavanaugh vote.

Take a moment and guess how often Manchin voted with the Trump administration’s position.

Over a four-year span, Manchin voted with Trump just over 50 percent of the time, according to the vote-counters over at FiveThirtyEight — including 60 percent of the time in the first two years of Trump’s presidency, and 32.6 percent of the time in the last two years. By comparison, West Virginia’s Republican senator, Shelley Moore Capito, voted with the Trump administration’s position 92.1 percent of the time.

Progressives look at Manchin and his vote for Brett Kavanaugh, his pro-coal, self-described pro-life, mostly pro-gun* views, and conclude they’re dealing with a conservative Republican who just happens to have a “D” after his name.

But if you step back and look at the big picture, Joe Manchin is clearly a Democrat. He’s a big supporter of the Affordable Care Act and wants as many residents of his state to enroll in ACA health-insurance plans as possible. He’s going to support more spending on health care in most forms. Like his predecessor, Manchin will seek to protect and expand the $25 billion in federal spending that goes to 70 federal agencies in West Virginia every year. He’s going to support just about any infrastructure spending bill that comes his way. Manchin wants to protect the coal industry, but he’s also supportive of spending more on green-energy initiatives, too.

Back in 2018, Manchin supported a deal that would have given the Dreamers a path to citizenship in exchange for $25 billion in border-security funding, and opposed President Trump’s declaration of a national emergency to justify the diversion of funding to border security. Manchin voted for impeachment both times.

In other words, Joe Manchin is an old-school Democrat who likes to spend money, and those ideas usually unify Democrats of every stripe. He won’t go along with much of the young progressive Democrats’ culture-war stuff — and you could argue that’s a losing sales pitch, even in Democratic Party circles. Variations of the boutique Twitter-left attitude were adopted by everyone from Cory Booker to Kirsten Gillibrand to Julian Castro** to Beto O’Rourke to — ahem — Kamala Harris, and it bombed. (Bernie Sanders is on board for the Democrats’ culture-war stuff, but his brand is a little bit different.)

Anybody wanting to get a proposal through Congress for the next two years should begin by asking themselves, “Would the average West Virginia voter support this idea?”

*Some Second Amendment advocates may question just how reliable an ally Manchin is; you may recall the Toomey-Manchin proposal for expanded background checks for gun sales.

** Hey, remember Julian Castro? Now we see he didn’t get a cabinet gig, ambassadorship, or any other Biden administration post. He says he’s probably not going to run for any office in 2022. He’s mostly doing MSNBC hits. If you come at the king and suggest he’s going senile during a televised primary debate, you had better not miss.

Slow Joe?

Politico’s evening newsletter, written by Sam Stein, formerly of the Huffington Post, laments that Biden is off to a slow start.

. . . just nine Biden cabinet nominees have been confirmed so far (two today!), compared to 14 for Donald Trump at the same point in his presidency and 15 for Barack Obama.

Biden compares poorly by other measures, too. Obama had signed a signature bill into law (the Lilly Ledbetter Act) before February; Biden signed one too, of slightly lesser reach: a waiver to allow his Pentagon chief to serve. Obama’s stimulus package was passed on Feb. 17; Biden’s Covid relief bill is on track to reach his desk by March 14. Obama delivered a speech before a joint session of Congress on Feb. 24; Biden is unlikely to deliver one until March. Even Biden’s address before the Munich Security Conference came later than his first Obama era one — Feb. 7 back then, Feb. 19 this year.

My first thought was, “duh, impeachment,” and Stein mentions it a few paragraphs down — but that wasn’t as time-consuming as one might think. The House passed the article before Biden was sworn in, and the Senate trial only took four days, from February 9 to 13.

If members of Congress are grumbling about Biden’s pace, maybe they should look in the mirror. The House has only had eleven days of votes since Biden’s inauguration, and the Senate had its “district work period” last week.

But it’s probably fair to ask whether the Biden administration really needed to come roaring out of the gate, signing a lot of rapidly passed legislation. The single biggest problem facing the country is the pandemic and vaccinations are the solution, so the single most pressing order of business is increasing the rate of vaccinations coast to coast. The rate has generally improved, in fits and starts, despite some bad winter weather disrupting shipments and cancelling appointments (see Monday’s second item). Passing all the big-spending bills in the world won’t do Americans nearly as much as good as getting a complete vaccination into the arm of everyone who wants one.

And the other point is, I suspect the perceived slow pace of a Joe Biden presidency was part of his appeal. His debate answers are meandering, he barely campaigned in person once the pandemic hit . . . this is a deliberately low-energy president. Progressives and media shouldn’t expect him to be Barack Obama 2.0.

Imagine Starting Kindergarten in February

Schools in my neck of the woods are taking those first tentative steps toward reopening:

Masked and socially distanced, pre-K and kindergarten students in Fairfax County were set to begin in-class learning on Tuesday for a first day of school unlike any other.

Fairfax County opted to open back up for its youngest students earlier than most elementary, middle and high school students. More groups of special education students were also set to return Tuesday.

“These kids have never been in school before,” Principal Lauren Badini said. “Having them come in first and giving them the opportunity to feel comfortable then phasing in the next group is part of that measured, strategic plan.”

The classrooms are set to run under a concurrent model: Twelve students will come on Tuesday and Wednesday while another dozen watch from home, then the groups switch for the other two days.

ADDENDUM: In the best news for the Johnson brothers since they hired Robert Saleh, the FDA says the Johnson & Johnson vaccine works well:

The vaccine had a 72 percent overall efficacy rate in the United States and 64 percent in South Africa, where a highly contagious variant emerged in the fall and is now driving most cases . . . the vaccine also showed 86 percent efficacy against severe forms of Covid-19 in the United States, and 82 percent against severe disease in South Africa. That means that a vaccinated person has a far lower risk of being hospitalized or dying from Covid-19.

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