Dec 20, 2021

Manchin says 'no' to Biden.

Manchin says 'no' to Biden.

Is this the end of Build Back Better?

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 12 minutes.

We're covering the major Manchin news and the future of Biden's agenda. Plus, a question about Reality Winner, a preview of a forthcoming interview, and an update on my Covid-19 situation.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) in 2017. Photo: Third Way Think Tank
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) in 2017. Photo: Third Way Think Tank

Covid update.

Thank you all for the kind words and support. My symptoms are nearly gone after about a week (just a lingering cough). However, my wife came down with it too, despite our best at-home quarantine efforts, and is getting the full Covid-19 experience (fever, chills, exhaustion, etc). Please send her your good vibes, prayers, and energy. I'm actually considering a newsletter dedicated to what happened, just to shed some light on how tough this virus (still) is to manage and how broken some of our systems (still) are in handling it. So I'll spare you the details for now.

Stay tuned... 👀

By popular demand, I sat down with Andrew Yang for a 40-minute interview on Friday. We'll be releasing it later this week!

Chatting with Andrew Yang for an upcoming newsletter/podcast!
Chatting with Andrew Yang for an upcoming newsletter/podcast!

Quick hits.

  1. Covid-19 cases are surging in states like New York, which has set several pandemic records for new daily cases. 80% of ICU beds in the U.S. are now occupied, with cases up 10% from last week, though officials are still hopeful the Omicron variant is less severe than previous variants. (The numbers)
  2. The New York Times released an investigative report on hidden Pentagon papers that show the breadth of civilian casualties from drone strikes and long-range bombing in the Middle East. (The report)
  3. Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA) passed away at the age of 76. Isakson retired from Congress in 2019 after being diagnosed with Parkinson's in 2013. (The news)
  4. The Senate passed a bill banning imports from the Chinese region of Xinjiang, where Uyghurs and ethnic minorities are being forced into reeducation and labor camps. (The bill)
  5. U.S. stocks, oil prices and bond yields opened lower on Monday as investors worry the Omicron variant will disrupt economic growth and add inflationary pressures. (The drop)

Our 'Quick Hits' section is created in partnership with Ground News, a website and app that rates the bias of news coverage and news outlets.

Today's topic.

Joe Manchin. Yesterday, the West Virginia Democrat went on Fox News Sunday and all but ended the negotiations over President Biden's $1.7 trillion social spending and climate change bill plan, dubbed Build Back Better (BBB).

Speaking with Bret Baier, Manchin cited rising inflation, the national debt, and the latest Covid-19 variant, and said "I can't go home and explain it to the people of West Virginia, I can't vote for it. And I cannot vote to continue with this piece of legislation. I just can't. I've tried everything humanly possible. I can't get there."

Baier asked Manchin directly if "this is a no," and Manchin said "this is a no on this legislation." He praised the president for negotiating in good faith, saying he has been "wonderful" to work with, but said we should be directing all our attention toward the new Covid-19 variant and inflation. BBB included legislation for free universal pre-k, extending the Child Tax Credit, and expansions of Obamacare and Medicare. It also included about $555 billion of tax incentives for producers and buyers of wind, solar and nuclear power, as well as tax credits for electric vehicles, billions of dollars to make buildings more energy efficient, and funding for the research and development of carbon capture technology.

The White House responded by releasing a scathing statement on Manchin, accusing him of breaking his word to the president, and claiming Manchin proposed a Build Back Better framework as recently as Tuesday that was nearly the same size as the bill President Biden and other Democrats want. "If his comments on FOX and written statement indicate an end to that effort, 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," the statement said.

While this might not be the final nail in the coffin for BBB, it certainly seems close. We've covered this bill a lot. You can read the latest coverage here, our breakdown of the new framework here, or some of our coverage from when the House passed this bill here.

Below, we'll take a look at some commentary from the left and right, then my take.

What the left is saying.

  • The left says progressives were right not to trust Manchin.
  • They say Manchin's reasons for opposing the bill don't add up.
  • Many point out this could be the last-best shot to address climate change.

In The Washington Post, James Downie said this is what Democrats get for playing too soft.

"Let’s be clear: Manchin’s excuses for opposing this bill — which would expand child-care and Medicare benefits, fight climate change and provide other support for low-income Americans — are nonsense. 'If I can’t go home and explain it to the people of West Virginia, I can’t vote for it,' he told Fox News Sunday," Downie wrote. “But polls have shown that West Virginians on balance support the BBB, and it would likely help West Virginia more than most states. The idea that Manchin, who’s won statewide election six times, can’t 'explain' a popular, useful bill to his constituents is laughable.

"The rest of Manchin’s rationalizations aren’t any better. 'The inflation that I was concerned about — it’s not transitory, it’s real. It’s harming every West Virginian,' he told Fox News’s Bret Baier," Downie said. "But numerous economists have said the BBB won’t affect inflation. As White House press secretary Jen Psaki noted in an acid statement, the Penn Wharton Budget Model, which Manchin is fond of citing, 'issued a report less than 48 hours ago that noted the Build Back Better Act will have virtually no impact on inflation in the short term, and, in the long run, the policies it includes will ease inflationary pressures.' Notably, Manchin did not cite any expert to rebut that view in either his Fox appearance or the statement announcing his stance."

In Vox, Li Zhou said this was "progressives' biggest fear."

"For members of 'the Squad,' a group of staunch progressives in the House, Sen. Joe Manchin’s statement opposing the Build Back Better Act didn’t come as a surprise. They’d long warned it was just a matter of time before Manchin derailed the bill if a vote on infrastructure legislation, which he supported, was held first. It turns out they were right," Zhou said. "The bills were coupled for weeks but were eventually separated due to pressure from House moderates and an assurance from President Joe Biden that he’d secure a yes vote from Manchin on the Build Back Better Act.

"It’s impossible to say exactly what would have happened had progressives not chosen to put their trust in the president’s ability to seal a deal," Zhou wrote. "Although Manchin helped negotiate the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework, it was never clear whether he wanted it to pass so badly that he’d be willing to overlook his concerns about the size of the Build Back Better Act and many of its programs... On the other hand, it did appear that the infrastructure legislation was a proposal that Manchin was invested in."

Anna Phillips said Manchin may have just doomed American climate policy.

"Manchin’s comments on 'Fox News Sunday' put at risk a $555 billion package of tax credits, grants and other policies aimed at lowering greenhouse gas emissions that would rank as the largest clean-energy investment in U.S. history," Phillips wrote. "The legislation’s passage would have helped Biden meet his goal of cutting America’s greenhouse gas emissions in half compared with 2005 levels by 2030. Without a reduction of that speed and scale, the United States would fall short of the targets it committed to under the 2015 Paris agreement, potentially locking in a future of increasingly destructive forest fires, deadly floods and droughts. Already, record-breaking hurricanes and fires are testing the federal government’s ability to respond to overlapping disasters.

"The administration has already adopted several policies to limit climate pollutants: This week it will tighten mileage standards for cars and light trucks, and it has adopted rules that would curb potent greenhouse gases used in refrigeration and air conditioning," Phillips wrote. "But several analyses have shown that these executive actions will not make deep enough emissions cuts to meet the president’s global climate pledge."

What the right is saying.

  • The right has lauded Manchin for sticking to his guns on inflation and debt.
  • They say it's not quite time to celebrate, as a smaller bill may still be in the works.
  • They criticize Democrats for trying to push through a major bill they don't have a mandate for.

The Wall Street Journal editorial board called it a "service to the country" that is "sparing it from huge tax increases" and entitlements that would "erode the incentive" for Americans to work.

"All of this brought the predictable consternation from progressives, with a furious Bernie Sanders denouncing Mr. Manchin and promising retribution in West Virginia. It’s a hollow threat. West Virginians opposed the BBB bill by about 3 to 1 in a recent poll," the board wrote. "The same media that cheered Mr. Biden’s entitlement ambitions as the second coming of FDR are now blaming Mr. Manchin for hurting his party. But where were they when we warned that Mr. Biden and Democrats in Congress were offering a radical agenda that far exceeded the mandate of their narrow victories in 2020 and the grasp of a 50-50 Senate? The media’s progressive bias again misled Democrats into thinking they would carry the day.

"We have to admit that Mr. Manchin’s defection also vindicates Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s strategy to support an infrastructure bill that showed bipartisan Senate deal-making is possible," the board added. "We don’t apologize for opposing that bill on the merits; it contains hundreds of billions of dollars in wasted spending. But Mr. McConnell calculated that sometimes you have to sacrifice a piece to win the chess match, and the GOP leader read the West Virginian well. The silver lining for Democrats is that this gives them a chance to face political reality before they leap off a cliff. The Democratic left must now confront the limits of their power."

The National Review editors said "good riddance" to Build Back Better.

"The radical legislation that sought to spend trillions of dollars to transform America at a time of historic debt was a bad idea that should never even have made it this far," the editors wrote. "The West Virginia senator has publicly made his position clear for months, and, as we explained last week, the bill in question violated many of the red lines he had drawn. It was more expensive, was not fully paid for, included accounting “gimmicks” he opposed, allowed for taxpayer funding of abortion, disguised the long-term cost by trillions of dollars by funding many projects for only a few years in hopes they would become permanent, created new programs when the government cannot pay for existing ones, and added to government outlays at a time when inflation is on the rise.

"In the wake of Manchin’s announcement, progressives held out hope that he was merely drawing a hard line at the bargaining table," the editors added. "After all, he indicated opposition to 'this piece of legislation' and openness to a bill in which Democrats would focus on a narrower set of priorities and fully fund them for a decade. This is certainly a possibility, and one that should prevent conservatives from fully celebrating."

Philip Klein warned that Manchin could still sign off on $1.75 trillion in spending over something, but that he effectively just ended the dream of transformational liberalism.

"Even if something reemerges from the rubble, it is not going to be anything along the lines of the 'transformational' type of legislation liberals envisioned earlier in the year," Klein wrote. "The idea was to augment the role of government in every aspect of individuals’ lives — with subsidized child care, a government takeover of preschool, more financing for college, a more generous Obamacare, and an expanded Medicare. Not to mention hundreds of billions of dollars in investments toward the Green New Deal. That magnitude of legislation is no longer in the cards, even if Manchin warms up to passing something.

"What’s important to realize is that this doesn’t merely foreclose the chances of Democrats getting something transformational passed this year, but it likely blocks them from doing so for the rest of the Biden presidency, and perhaps for the rest of the decade," Klein said. "That is, Republicans are almost certain to retake control of at least the House next year given the historical performance of the party in power during midterms and Biden’s low approval ratings."

My take.

I'll start with a mea culpa. I put myself in the progressive caucus's shoes during earlier coverage of this process, and I ultimately said I thought they made the right call by unlinking the infrastructure bill from BBB. There were two reasons for that: 1) I thought it was just better for the country, because we needed the infrastructure bill. 2) I also said, strategically, I thought that by passing something progressives could prove they would work with the middle, get some momentum, and hold up their end of the deal. Eventually I figured Biden would work over, then win over Manchin.

It's on point No. 2 that I was wrong. Progressives like members of The Squad said Manchin was never going to get on board, even if he got what he wanted, and it seems as if — however you feel about them — they were right to want to keep the bills linked. There are plenty of reasons people oppose Build Back Better, but the ones Manchin cited really don't add up. Manchin had agreed publicly and privately to as much as $1.75 trillion in spending, and the same sources he regularly cites about other issues have said this bill won't cause any long-term inflationary pressure (in fact they say the opposite).

Citing the debt, too, is a pretty silly take from a guy who has reliably voted for deficit spending over the last couple of years and enthusiastically dumps trillions into the military industrial complex every chance he gets. The reality is Manchin just doesn’t want to spend on the same priorities many of his colleagues do, which he should be willing to say outright rather than hiding behind concerns about the debt.

Then there's the climate change piece. This one has been tough for climate activists to swallow, and who can blame them? Manchin made $500,000 in the last year alone from investments in a family coal brokerage he founded. He rejected a clean electricity program that would have been the most transformative energy policy in the bill, then objected to a tax credit for purchases of electric vehicles built with union labor, then objected to limiting future oil and gas drilling in our oceans, then objected to a fee on methane emissions. He seems to accept the reality of climate change, but he also rejects nearly every proposal to address it, and his conflicts of interest are as clear as day.

As I've said from the start, the policies in this bill I supported most fervently were the Child Tax Credit (which has bipartisan support), a paid parental leave policy (a goal that has bipartisan support, with deep divisions on how to get it done) and legislation that would help the government negotiate down our absurdly expensive prescription drugs (a goal which has bipartisan support and which Trump attempted). I was hoping for something — anything — to address climate change, which is a generational issue that is rapidly getting worse no matter how much I'd like to pretend otherwise.

Now Democrats will be scrambling to extend the Child Tax Credit, which will expire at the end of the year without action. It's unclear how — or if — they will be able to get this done, but given how hard it would be to restart the program if it lapses, I imagine they'll do everything they can to make it happen. As for Manchin, Democrats are still lucky to have him. He serves in a state where they'd never have a senator otherwise, and if he retired his seat would almost certainly go to a Republican far less willing to play ball than he is.

Like it or not, his vote reflects the reality of West Virginia politics and is something the vast majority of his constituents will probably support. It’s not one senator holding up this bill, it’s 51. And while plenty of his reasons don't add up, Manchin has been crystal clear from the beginning: He wanted to use this bill to do a few things well and for long periods of time, he wouldn't vote for a bill with any budget gimmicks, and he wanted this legislation to be fully paid for. For whatever reason, very few Democrats (or pundits) took him at his word, and he apparently meant it.

It's hard to imagine Democrats giving up now, but whatever bill rises out of these ashes won't look much like the $1.7 trillion framework passed in the House — which itself was vastly different from the initial $3.5 trillion proposal or the $6 trillion pipe dream many progressives were pushing for. Both Biden and the progressive caucus now have seriously weakened hands, and it could be weeks (or months) before any meaningful talks pick back up.

Have thoughts?

We just gave our website a makeover, with a pretty new comment section. Remember: If you're a subscriber, you can scroll to the bottom of any newsletter on the website and leave a comment. I'm going to try to interact in the comments more this year and in 2022. You can also reply to any newsletter and it goes straight to my inbox. To comment on this newsletter, click here.

Your questions, answered.

Q: How do you compare what Julian Assange did to what Reality Winner did? They seem relatively similar to me except that perhaps Assange actually put individuals' lives in peril. She spent time in jail… I understand she was not “pretending” to be a journalist.

— Anonymous

Tangle: The major difference in what they did is that Reality Winner unambiguously committed a crime. She basically made a calculation that breaking the law was worth it, and that she believed she was upholding her oath by telling Americans the truth about potential vulnerabilities in our election system. Assange, on the other hand, has maintained that he did not commit a crime — but only procured classified information the same way investigative journalists do (one of the critical charges against him is that he helped Chelsea Manning hack a government computer, rather than just disseminate classified material Manning gave to him).

The other difference, obviously, is the scale. Winner gave The Intercept a spicy story about potential Russian hacking of our election systems. Assange has repeatedly helped facilitate some of the biggest stories of our time, and in Manning's case, unveiled war crimes by the U.S. and the depth of the public deception about how our battles in the Middle East were going. I think what Assange did had a much bigger impact and made much bigger news than what Winner did.

In the end, Winner spent four years in prison, a punishment she seems to have accepted for what she did. She actually just did a fascinating 60 Minutes interview that's worth your time if you're interested in her story.

Want to ask a question? You can reply to this email and write in (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.

A story that matters.

Quietly, President Joe Biden has appointed a record number of federal judges in the first year of his presidency. No president has filled more vacancies in four decades, and Biden is hoping to outpace former President Donald Trump, who cites judicial nominations on federal courts and at the Supreme Court as one of his crowning achievements in office. Biden has so far nominated over 70 judges and confirmed 40, the most of any president at this point in their time in office since Ronald Reagan (Trump had confirmed fewer than 20 and nominated close to 60). More than 230 judges were seated during the Trump presidency. The Washington Post has a story about what's next.


  • 48%. The percentage of West Virginian voters who favor Biden's Build Back Better plan, according to a BlueGreen Alliance survey taken in October.
  • 46%. The percentage of West Virginia voters who oppose Biden's Build Back Better plan, according to the same survey.
  • 74%. The percentage of West Virginia voters who said Sen. Joe Manchin should oppose Build Back Better, according to a separate poll in mid-November.
  • 32%. President Biden's approval rating in that same poll.
  • 2024. The next time Sen. Manchin is up for re-election in West Virginia.
  • 61%. The percentage of Americans nationally who support Biden's Build Back Better plan, according to a Monmouth poll in early December.

Have a nice day.

An 8-year-old Boston terrier is being credited with saving the life of a nine-month-old baby in Connecticut. Jeff and Kelly Dowling said that while their daughter was asleep in her nursery on Tuesday, their dog Henry repeatedly barged into her room to wake the baby and was acting strangely. After shooing him out of the room several times, the Dowlings finally went in themselves, only to realize their daughter — who had a cold — was having trouble breathing and was turning blue in the face. "She wasn't clearing her airway," Kelly Dowling said. "She started to turn blue and go rigid and she just really couldn't, she couldn't get air, couldn't get any oxygen." They rushed her to the hospital where she had her airways cleared by a doctor. Now, the Dowlings said they're letting Henry sleep in the bed with them and planning to make him a steak dinner as a thank you. ABC News has the story.

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