Sen. Manchin deserves credit in battle for bipartisanship

Posted on 04-24-2022

Ben duPont
Special to the USA TODAY Network

In politics, we rarely witness authentic “I told you so” moments. Elected officials who have been proven wrong too readily excuse away their misguided choices. They blame unforeseen economic shifts, or unanticipated national security crises, or some little wrinkle that they failed to anticipate. That too often robs those who made the right call of the credit they deserve. But then there’s Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.

He is due the biggest “I told you so” anyone might conjure, if only because the scorn he withstood before being proven correct on a whole range of big calls last year. Today, we would all do well to consider his triumph because it’s not just that his predictions have proven out — but because his wisdom was born of a rare but treasured approach to governing.

As you may recall, last fall, Manchin was relentlessly pilloried by members of his own party for standing in the way of Build Back Better (BBB), the massive climate and social spending bill Democrats were trying to jam through Congress. Manchin wasn’t standing against the bill for political reasons—he was worried at the time about what might befall the country if it passed. He was pointedly concerned that, whatever upside to the programs Democrats passed over GOP protests, the cost would do America damage down the line.

He made his concerns known during a pandemic lull — well before the horrific surge that spread during January and through February. And he explained to a reporter at The Wall Street Journal: “What do we do if the pandemic gets worse under the next viral mutation? What do we do if there is a financial crisis like the one that led to the Great Recession? What if we face a terrorist attack or major international conflict? How will America respond to such crises if we needlessly spend trillions of dollars today?” He was fearful that this new deluge of federal spending would undermine Washington’s ability to respond to a future crisis. He called for a “strategic pause” before moving forward.

Look where we are as you read this. We’re on the other side of another coronavirus wave, but the government is short of funding for supplies and new variants threaten to bring yet another destabilizing outbreak. Inflation is a national emergency today, but it would be much worse had the federal government appropriated hundreds of billions of dollars of additional funding last year. America is closer to the precipice of a nuclear war than at any time in recent memory. But imagine if the funding we’re now spending on aid to Ukraine were tied up in the programs proposed in BBB.

The issue here isn’t just that Sen. Manchin’s decision to stand against Build Back Better has proven prescient. It’s that the reasons he was so adamant centered the process used to craft the bill. He fundamentally believed then, and believes now, that huge bills stuffed with new ideas should draw support from both political parties. But BBB had been crafted without any GOP input or buy-in, unlike the bipartisan CARES Act passed in response to COVID in 2020, or the bipartisan infrastructure bill passed late last year. And Manchin, who is independent enough to endorse bipartisan-minded Republicans, including Sen. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, refused to rubber-stamp a bill that had been drafted exclusively by members of his own party.

That’s why this should be more than just an “I told you so” for one member of the Senate. It should serve as a commentary on the way Washington is supposed to work. Bipartisanship isn’t just a high-minded ideal — it’s an invaluable element of the policymaking process because it balances competing interests. America is blessed with an internal diversity that ensures we have more ideas, more points of view, and more wisdom to bear on issues of great public import. But we are too frequently robbed of the opportunity to take advantage of that diversity because legislators fail to reach across the aisle.

Every elected official on Capitol Hill likely arrives in the House or Senate believing their agenda, if passed entirely by their design, would solve the nation’s problems. But in a democracy like ours, the best policy emerges only when leaders champion and protect the back-and-forth that allows well-intentioned legislators to incorporate legitimate concerns from the other side. Sen. Manchin showed remarkable bravery in standing against Build Back Better—but his approach to the legislative process also demands its due. Washington works best when it’s focused on crafting two-party solutions. We all need to do more to recognize and celebrate those who stand as beacons of that ideal.

Ben duPont is co-chair of No Labels Delaware.