Los Angeles Times

Two Joes and one party that’s losing its way

- JONAH GOLDBERG @JonahDispa­tch

The wall-to-wall coverage of progressiv­e carping about Joe Biden has been interrupte­d by reruns of progressiv­e carping about West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin III.

Last week, in the wake of horrible inflation numbers, Manchin said, in effect, “I’m out” on President Biden’s climate, energy and tax package. Because the Senate is split 50-50, that means it’s effectivel­y dead for the foreseeabl­e future, since no Republican is likely to go along with it. Manchin didn’t say he’d never vote for it, but he wants to pass a prescripti­on drug bill first. Since there’s no room on the legislativ­e calendar before the midterms — which will scramble everything anyway — the package is at best on indefinite hold.

Democrats, especially the progressiv­es, are vexed. The founder of the Center for American Progress, John Podesta, a former top aide to President Obama, declared that Manchin chose “as his legacy to be the one man who single-handedly doomed humanity.” On Sunday, Sen. Bernie Sanders told ABC’s Martha Raddatz that his Senate colleague “has sabotaged the president’s agenda.” Sanders pointedly added that he’s been warning people that the sabotage was intentiona­l in part because Manchin’s been in the pocket of the fossil fuel industry all along.

Whatever the underlying policy merits of this by now familiar criticism of Manchin may be, one thing is fairly obvious: The critics have his motivation­s wrong. I’m no mind reader, but I’m fairly confident that the West Virginia senator doesn’t want to be remembered as the man who doomed humanity. As for wanting to sabotage the president’s agenda, that’s certainly more debatable. But Sanders’ framing obscures the fact that what he really means to say is that Manchin is underminin­g Sanders’ agenda.

Of course, it’s not just Sanders’ agenda. But Sanders speaks for the progressiv­es who are increasing­ly pushing the national Democratic Party left. And that’s the fundamenta­l flaw in all of the criticism of not just Manchin but Biden as well.

In recent weeks, progressiv­e complaints about Biden have been about his ineffectiv­eness or incompeten­ce — not his ideology. No one would be griping about Biden’s age or poor messaging if he were getting stuff done.

A failure to follow through on the Democrats’ agenda is what’s making them angry. As Bloomberg’s Ramesh Ponnuru writes, “Biden has always been close to the center of his party. Unsurprisi­ngly, then, the basic political mistakes of his presidency have been partywide ones.” In other words, the conversati­on about the staggering political headwinds the Democrats are facing ignores the possibilit­y that the party itself is the problem.

Biden wasn’t bucking his party when he pulled out of Afghanista­n. He wasn’t freelancin­g with his lavish spending proposals or his denunciati­ons of Republican­s as representi­ng “Jim Crow 2.0” for being against his party’s proposed electoral reforms. Nor was he going rogue with his proposed revisions to clarify that Title IX guidelines extend to sexual orientatio­n and gender identity.

Hence the irony. Manchin is hugely popular with his voters because he’s bucking not merely “the president’s agenda” but the Democrats’ agenda, while support for Biden has cratered by sticking to that agenda — despite his inability to get much of it enacted because it’s not sufficient­ly popular.

Obviously, if he were racking up more legislativ­e wins, Biden would be less unpopular. But one of the primary reasons he’s failing is that his agenda, and his rhetoric, caters to a progressiv­e base that speaks for a minority of voters.

Democrats kept pushing massive spending even as inflation proved to be anything but transitory. Manchin opposed that spending because he feared its inflationa­ry effects. Manchin won that policy argument, but Democrats like Sanders pretend he is simply a party wrecker. Sure, Manchin is cozy with the fossil fuel industry, but you know what voters want? Cheaper fossil fuels.

One needn’t argue that everything Democrats want to do is unpopular, but neither is it the sole representa­tive of the popular will — or even the collective will of rank-and-file Democratic voters. According to a recent Monmouth University poll, the top four issues for voters are all variations on the same theme: inflation (33%), gas prices (15%), the economy (9%), everyday bills (6%). After that, it’s “abortion, reproducti­ve rights” at 5% and “guns, gun ownership” at 3%. (The Jan. 6 riot, packing the Supreme Court and transgende­r issues don’t even make the list.)

I get the sincere and principled concern over issues like climate change and abortion rights. But if you listen to progressiv­e legislator­s — usually holding extremely safe seats — and to party activists like Podesta, you’d think that they’re looking at polling data from a very different electorate than the one that actually exists.

The harsh truth for progressiv­es: Most voters just aren’t that into you.

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