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How the Sausage Doesn’t Get Made | Insight

As Build Back Better looks to be moving to the back burner, it’s worth reminding people how self-interest can trump virtue in politics.

In response to the likely fatal knife blow that West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin dealt to President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better (BBB) legislation last Sunday, the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) put out an interesting statement. It declared that Manchin had “made a promise to President Biden to support” the version of BBB that passed the House of Representatives a few weeks ago, and that on Sunday he had “betrayed his commitment not only to the President and Democrats in Congress but most importantly, to the American people.” The CPC’s chair, Washington Representative Pramila Jayapal, told The Intercept that Manchin’s “lack of integrity is stunning.”

I do believe that the CPC is genuinely disappointed by Manchin’s public statements. I am, however, skeptical that the disappointment stems entirely from public-spiritedness, and especially skeptical that the CPC is particularly shocked.

First, let me rewind a bit. In the spring of 2021, Biden unveiled two major legislative initiatives, one largely centered around infrastructure and the other around social welfare policies. The White House decided to split the legislation, almost certainly because it was thought that the infrastructure portion could find the bipartisan support Biden promised to deliver in his administration.

As negotiations over the infrastructure legislation progressed, it became clear that progressives in Congress did not intend to allow the infrastructure bill—favored by moderate Representatives and Senators—to pass unless the social spending bill passed simultaneously. In other words, they decided to hold the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework (BIF) hostage.

That is, until off-year elections were held last month, in which Democrats performed poorly across the board. In response, Democratic leaders in Congress swiftly brought the infrastructure bill to a vote, hoping that it could staunch the party’s bleeding. While it also pledged to take big steps on BBB at the same time, a group of moderate House Democrats rebelled. Rather than threaten to sink the infrastructure package, the majority of the CPC ended the stalemate and voted for it.

Here’s where notions of political virtue, or “commitment” and “integrity” come back in. Anyone could see that progressives surrendering their leverage would diminish the odds of their social spending package to pass. What’s more likely is that CPC leaders like Jayapal deduced that in the aftermath of the November elections, more reluctant members of Congress would rather sink the infrastructure legislation than pass both bills.

The CPC made a calculation out of its perceived interests and decided that it did not want to appear to be getting in the way of the Democratic Party appearing to succeed. It alleges that Manchin lacks “integrity,” but Manchin never made a public commitment to the effect that he would support any iteration of BBB that the White House proposed. And for Manchin’s part, while he may have some genuine—if misplacedconcerns about inflation and the bill’s price tag, one doesn’t need to look far to identify his own interests in political donations, his income from coal, and even simply the prestige afforded someone considered the decisive vote in the US Senate.

None of this is to say that there isn’t such a thing as virtue in politics, that cold, hard interests in power, money, and status are supreme. People are composites of admirable and less admirable impulses. And political structures often incentivize even the good-hearted to surrender when necessary and to engage in occasionally cringeworthy, dishonest attempts at saving face.

But we must acknowledge that interests, short-term gains and losses, and even cowardice are features of human life. It might be trite to point that out, but in such a fraught political moment, when we have a tendency to view our particular tribe or sub-tribe as being virtuous and all others as vicious, it’s worth remembering that even those on our team—and this rings true of both sides—are fallible. Progressives can complain about Manchin, but fronting his lack of “integrity” looks foolish when most of us can see for ourselves what happened: a calculated capitulation. It’s fair to demand more, but when it comes to politics, it’s probably safer to expect less.

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