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writing for godot

Is Joe Manchin Really a Bipartisanship Fetishist?

Written by Carl Peterson   
Friday, 16 July 2021 01:58

Is Joe Manchin Really a Bipartisanship Fetishist?

Our great democracies still tend to think that a stupid man is more likely to be honest than a clever man, and our politicians take advantage of this prejudice by pretending to be even more stupid than nature made them.–-Bertrand Russell

And, might I add, the same goes for corporate journalists.

At this critical moment in American and global history none of Joe Manchin’s or Kyrsten Sinema’s public rationales for valuing the filibuster above ambitious Democratic legislative goals have begun to demonstrate sound reasoning or correctness of basic facts.  In other words, Joe and Kyrsten have presented plainly stupid arguments to explain their claimed deep concern about excessive partisanship--and their putative belief that retention of the filibuster will, in the future, somehow promote the bipartisanship that it has helped to undercut over the last several decades.  And yet, and yet, the establishment media cannot bring itself to enunciate what is the simplest and most probable explanation for Manchin and Sinema’s position on the filibuster: Joe and Kyrsten smell an opportunity to leverage their positions in support of the filibuster not to selflessly promote bipartisanship and rescue America from a perilous decline into destructive partisanship, but merely to bring to themselves what they perceive to be the good things available to US Senators willing to take a few risks in the service of billionaires.  It’s a simple, tawdry tale, but the evidence shows that the tale contains the most probable explanation.

Three Recent Examples of Status Quo Propaganda from Establishment Journalists

Toward the end of June 2021 the establishment print media produced what appears to be almost a matched set of three status quo propaganda pieces whose general claims can be summarized as “There’s no story here, nothing to see here when it comes to what makes Joe Manchin tick.  He’s just what he’s always been: a man “with bad ideas,”(stupid) perhaps, but sincerely dedicated to bipartisanship.”  In other words, ol Joe might be breathtakingly wrong for believing that bipartisanship can be resurrected by the filibuster as our nation struggles with its most extreme polarization in 150 years, but at least he’s honest.  Instinctively it seems, the establishment media is trading on the prejudice pointed out long ago by Bertrand Russell, but in doing so they should hope that their readers will think them neither stupid nor dishonest.

In his June 21, 2021 profile of Joe Manchin, The Man Who Controls the Senate, in The New Yorker, status quo journalist Evan Osnos employs the profile genre to produce smooth, ostensibly confident, (but unpersuasive to those familiar with certain facts not divulged in Osnos’ Manchin profile) even light-hearted propaganda that may calm those who had begun to become anxious about Manchin’s true motivations.  The political-figure profile, like the celebrity profile, uses small details and facts like tessera in a mosaic to create an image of its subject.  The details and facts in a political profile are generally more or less true while not necessarily individually very significant, but the profile’s power to deceive despite not containing outright lies or factual errors comes from the arrangement of the pieces, their relationship to one another, and from the deliberate choice to withhold certain pieces whose presence in the mosaic would undermine the portrait the journalist intended to produce in the first place.  Osnos provides plenty of folksy detail about Joe Manchin, his early life in West Virginia, his early jobs in sales of “furniture, carpet, coal,” before entering state politics in the early 80s. About Manchin’s uncle A. James Manchin once a well-known politician in West Virginia, run out of his job as state treasurer after losing $300 million of state money to bad investments; Manchin’s uncanny ability to survive politically as a Democrat in a state that favored Trump by 39 points over Biden in the 2020 election; Manchin’s claim that he is who he is because of where he’s from: Farmington, West Virginia; and numerous other tessera together portraying Manchin as a political animal but a man who truly believes in bipartisanship--but perhaps without sound justification given the current state of American politics.  

The political profile tells you a lot of things, many of them small, that are supposed to provide the telling narrative, but the art of Osnos’ profile never gets below the surface he has created with his detail, partly because facts crucial to an understanding of Joe Manchin (and that Osnos must have been aware of at that time he wrote) are absent from the profile’s mosaic.  (For example, where is mention of Jane Mayer’s March 29, 2021 article in the same magazine Osnos works for--a serious article worthy of America’s serious attention--detailing a January 8, 2021 meeting of a McConnell advisor with major conservative groups including the Koch network.  See discussion below under Timeline.  And no mention of the wealth Manchin has accrued during his career as a professional politician, making him one of the wealthier members of the Senate.)  And partly because Osnos never puts Manchin’s justification of himself to the test of serious scrutiny, a test it deserves given its immediate relevance to the political crisis enveloping the country, and the multiple global crises gathering to overwhelm the global elite’s mysteriously inert responses to oncoming catatastrope.

In his June 17, 2021 article in the New York Times, Maybe Joe Manchin Knows Exactly what He’s Doing, status quo journalist Ezra Klein begins by praising Manchin.  Manchin is “a political magician,” for being elected as a Democrat in deep red West Virginia.  “Put simply, Manchin shouldn’t exist,” Klein offers in a factually false curlicue of hyperbole.  And, “Democrats cannot take him for granted...Their Senate majority, and thus the whole of their legislative agenda, hinges on his ability to win elections anyone else would lose.”  This seems to be a counterproductive thing to say in an article that otherwise encourages the reader to view Manchin favorably.  It reminds us that Manchin won his election all right, as a Democrat all right, but the whole of the historically ambitious Democratic agenda still hinges on Manchin, for the putative reason that Manchin believes, 1) That the filibuster has the power to heal the Senate’s excessive partisanship; 2) That the filibuster won’t continue to be used for anti-democratic purposes; 3) That in the democracy Manchin claims to want to protect, it is appropriate for one Senator (holding no formal position of extraordinary power in the Senate) from a state with 1.8 million people, and all the while himself subject to the temptations of dark money saturating national politics, to put his own political judgement and preferences above that of the Senate Democratic Caucus, but more than that, to arrogate control, by virtue of the quirk of fate that placed him in the Senate catbird seat, of the agenda of the entire United States Senate, which purports to represent 330 million Americans.  Evidently, the situation is such that it invited audacity from Senator Manchin.

Klein finds that the question everyone is asking, “What does Manchin want?” has already been truly answered many times, by Manchin himself.  As Manchin has said over and over and over again, he wants bipartisanship.  And that’s that.  For Klein, it is problem solved.  No other evidence need be considered.  All I can say is, Manchin must really, really, really, dig bipartisanship.   

One of the occupational hazards for status quo establishment journalists like Klein is that the propaganda they sometimes write to support a status quo increasingly unacceptable to most Americans is that they must ostensibly believe things that, as in Klein’s case when writing about Manchin, make him look, if he is not immediately recognized as a status quo establishment journalist, lazy or stupid, or both.  Klein seems to be aware that something about Joe Manchin still needs explaining even if one accepts that Manchin is a simple man who likes bipartisanship a lot (I mean a lot!).  

Klein admits that Manchin sometimes favors “the “aesthetic” of bipartisanship over its actual pursuit.”

"In suggesting that he would oppose any voting reform that was not bipartisan, Manchin offered Republicans a veto over the legislation rather than a choice between partisan and bipartisan bills. He was not asking of them what he was asking of his colleagues, or even of himself."

But Klein doesn’t dwell on this ticklish (for both Klein and Manchin but for different reasons) point.  Klein moves on quickly--like a good status quo journalist--away from a possible discussion of political venality and the destructive effects of plutocratic dark money on bipartisanship and democracy--to discuss things Manchin might do with his power, like pressure Republicans in the Senate to participate in bipartisanship and as much as he has pressured Democrats to move unilaterally toward Republicans.  It's odd that Klein does not consider possible reasons for why Manchin has not already done this.

In his June 23, 2021 article in the Atlantic, Joe Manchin Was Never a Mystery, status quo journalist David Graham, takes a tack similar to Osnos’ and Klein’s, breezily informing the reader that all the fuss about what Manchin’s true motivations are are much ado about nothing.  

"Trying to figure out who Manchin is and what he wants, or how he’s changed—the natural and reasonable defaults of political-profile writing—assumes there’s something more than meets the eye. Really, though, Manchin is who he’s always been: a middle-of-the-road guy with good electoral instincts, decent intentions, and bad ideas."

This is an enchantingly pure demonstration of Bertrand Russell’s observation that politicians in modern democracies exploit the existing prejudice that stupid politicians are honest while clever ones can’t be trusted.  David Graham assists Manchin in that exploitation: “good electoral instincts, decent intentions...bad ideas.” by selling the idea that there is nothing to see when it comes to questions about Manchin’s motivations.  How does David Graham know there is nothing to see?  

First, let’s look at Graham’s various other ways of saying to his readers, “Nothing to see here folks!  Let’s move on.”  

Graham quotes Evan Osnos, one of the other two status quo journalists in the matched set of three:

“Nobody who knows Manchin well was surprised by his decision [to declare that he would not support abolition or weakening of the filibuster.]” The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos writes in one of the latest and deepest pieces on the senator.”

And Graham offers his own, mostly unsupported, assertions:

“Manchin has said all along—though not always clearly—that he doesn’t want to eliminate the filibuster.” [Assertion: Manchin has a history of opposition to getting rid of the filibuster.]

“The important thing was he was against nuking the filibuster then, and he is now.” [Assertion: Manchin has a history of opposition to getting rid of the filibuster.]

“But searching for a Rosebud to explain his mentality will get you nowhere.” [Assertion: Nothing to see here folks.]

“He works hard. He believes in moderation and bipartisanship for their own sake.” [Assertion: Manchin is hard-working and a virtuous man who really believes in bipartisanship for its own sake.]

“[Manchin] doesn’t bring the elaborate psychological baggage to the role that John McCain did: the weight of paternal expectation, the time as a POW, the Keating Five mess, the 2008 presidential loss, the animosity with Donald Trump.” [Assertion/implication: Manchin is a simple, honest man, unlike some other politicians, now deceased.]

“If he just wanted power, he could get more by agreeing to kill the filibuster and become the deciding vote on everything. Instead, he has forsworn that power in his quest for bipartisanship.” [Assertion: Manchin is not power hungry, he has forsworn the pursuit of power in his selfless quest for bipartisanship.”]  

Graham’s depiction of Manchin as that rare politician who transparently, selflessly pursues ideals that he believes are for the good of the country is light on supporting evidence, and does not seriously consider countervailing evidence, in the same ways that Klein’s and Osnos’ depictions do not.

Timeline of Activity Relevant to Determining Joe Manchin’s True Motivations Regarding the Filibuster and Major Democratic Legislation

In January 2011, Joe Manchin “voted in favor of Senate Resolution 10, which would have: eliminated the filibuster on motions to proceed to a debate on the substance of the bill; eliminated secret holds; allowed both the Majority Leader and the Minority Leader to offer up to three amendments on behalf of their members after cloture has been filed as long as the amendments are relevant; required that Senators who wish to filibuster a bill must actually take the floor and make remarks.”

On June 25, 2020, when he was asked about Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley’s push to eliminate the filibuster, Joe Manchin said, “I just heard they started talking and I’m interested in listening to anything because [the Senate] isn’t working.”  Here, Manchin indicates that he knows the Senate isn’t working, and understands that maybe the filibuster is part of the problem.  But by March 2021 Manchin would publicly express his belief that retaining the filibuster is vital to the project of reviving bipartisanship, which in turn is vital to the protection of American democracy.

On November 17, 2020, Charles Koch’s book, (co-written by his aide Brian Hooks,) Believe in People: Bottom-Up Solutions for a Top-Down World, was published.  In the book Koch claims to regret his previous extreme partisanship.  Koch’s abrupt professed switch from extreme and intense partisanship to a claim that he “goofed,” by being so partisan in the past coincided neatly with the then-recent Republican loss of the White House, which would call for an advertisement of Koch’s professed new political strategy.  But what Koch portrayed as a wised-up move toward bipartisanship for the good of the country turns out to have been more of an indicator that his machine would begin to intensify its focus on pressuring and rewarding Democratic politicians likely to cooperate in sabotaging Democratic legislative objectives.

According to Jane Mayer’s March 29, 2021 article in The New Yorker: Inside the Koch-Backed Effort to Block the Largest Election-Reform Bill in Half a Century, on January 8, 2021, 3 days after the results of the Georgia Senate run-off elections gave marginal control of the US Senate to Democrats, a Mitch McConnell advisor and operatives from of a number of right wing groups, including at least one from the Koch Network, held a private conference call to discuss political strategy to counter Democratic legislative objectives, particularly the one that frightened them the most--provisions in Democratic electoral reform legislation that would limit secret campaign spending.  The conferees’ own polling showed that these provisions were very popular among both Republican and Democratic voters, and none of the groups represented on the conference call had been able to come up with a way to change voter attitudes about billionaires secretly buying elections.  According to Mayer, “...a senior Koch operative said that opponents would be better off ignoring the will of American voters and trying to kill the bill in Congress.”  In other words, they would need to change the minds of a few of the people’s elected representatives in Congress rather than attempt to change the minds of the people themselves.  

On March 17, 2021, Joe Manchin was the only member of the Senate Democratic caucus who did not co-sponsor the For the People Act of 2021, although he had co-sponsored the same legislation (For the People Act of 2019) two years before.

On March 20, 2021, (a little over two months after a Mitch McConnell advisor’s January 8, 2021, private conference call with right wing political groups where they discussed their terror of electoral reforms that would limit dark money spending in elections) several major right wing groups, most with ties to the Koch Network, held a rally in West Virginia to convince Joe Manchin to oppose the Democrats’ electoral reform legislation and any Democratic effort to abolish the filibuster in the Senate.  

On March 26, 2021, Manchin stated publicly that partisan electoral-reform would “exacerbate the distrust that millions of Americans harbor against the US government,” echoing Charles Koch’s duplicitous claim in his November 2020 book that he regretted his previous partisanship because it had helped to divide the country.

In an April 7, 2021, op ed in the Washington Post, Manchin wrote, “I have said it before and will say it again to remove any shred of doubt: There is no circumstance in which I will vote to eliminate or weaken the filibuster.”  

On April 15, 2021 the US Chamber of Commerce announced that it had made first quarter campaign contributions to Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, the only Democrats on the list of 11 politicians it donated to in first quarter 2021.  Manchin and Sinema are the only two Democrats in the Senate prominently on record as opposing elimination of the filibuster.

According to a June 18, 2021 Intercept article by Lee Fang and Ryan Grim, on June 14, 2021, Joe Manchin participated from his Senate office in a private conference call hosted by No-Labels, a political organization registered for IRS purposes as a 501(c)(3) non-profit “social welfare organization,” whose professed goal is to promote bipartisanship  and eliminate political gridlock.  Major political donors were on the call, including billionaire investors, executives from hedge funds and private equity firms.  The tape was leaked.  Among Manchin’s recorded remarks was his suggestion to the donors that he needed help “flipping” some Republican Senators to vote for the January 6 commission, which had garnered only 6 Republican votes the first time it came to a vote.  Manchin indicated that Republican failure to produce even 10 votes for the “common sense” January 6th commission undercut the credibility of his claim that bipartisanship was possible with Republicans in the current political environment, and increased the pressure on him to give up his defense of the filibuster.  Manchin’s barely tacit ploy to the donors on the call?  Help me to help you save the filibuster.  Use your wherewithal to make a quid pro quo deal with certain Republican senators to vote for the commission when they would not otherwise, to create not the reality, but the illusion of bipartisanship.  Manchin suggested that if the vote comes up again (as he intends to push for,) Republican Senator Roy Blunt might be induced to vote for it even though he did not vote for it the first time.  “Roy is retiring. If some of you all who might be working with Roy in his next life could tell him, that’d be nice and it’d help our country. That would be very good to get him to change his vote. And we’re going to have another vote on this thing. That’ll give me one more shot at it.”  

Manchin then made another all-but-explicit request for quid pro quo offers to some of his other Republican senator associates: that a few more Republican senators besides Roy Blunt could be encouraged to vote for the commission to reach the magic number of 10 Republican votes necessary to establish the commission--if the donors did their part and promised the senators future remuneration in return for their vote for the commission.  Here Joe Manchin demonstrated a belief not that retention of the filibuster is vital to democracy, but that dark money is vital to the maintaining the pretense that bipartisanship is possible!

The transcript of the conference call shows Manchin in his comfort-zone, dealing with extremely wealthy individuals--politically active primarily through the application of influence through money, and presumably opposed to costly progressive legislative initiatives--comfort that could not have been achieved by a novice in such dealing or by a politician excessively constrained by genuine belief in ideals such as, for example, preservation of bipartisanship for the good of the country.  The evidence of the leaked tape suggests that Manchin has been involved in this kind of pay-to-play deal-making many times before.  The transcript shows that Manchin sees nothing wrong with pay-to-play, but as a politician skilled at operating in the plutocratic dark-money flooded American Congress, Manchin is aware that many voting Americans do think it wrong, and it ought not to be something he ever admits to, but rather tries to cover with self-aggrandizing claims implying that he is first and foremost worried about his country, and sincerely believes that preserving the filibuster will promote and eventually somehow revive bipartisanship, even though the Senate filibuster has existed throughout the Senate’s decades-long decline to its current functional nadir.

In attempting to explain to the billionaires on the conference call his views of why partisanship was not the way to go, Manchin let the cat out of the bag that he nearly became the only Democrat in either house to vote for the Koch-backed Republican tax cut-for-the-wealthy of December 2017.  Evidently there was a tentative quid pro quo deal with McConnell that Manchin would vote for the legislation if McConnell allowed Manchin’s additions to the bill.  As it turned out, McConnell did not need Manchin’s vote to pass the bill in a (purely partisan) vote; Manchin’s additions to the bill were rejected, and since Manchin did not get his quid, he, like a true horsetrader unencumbered by ideals (like bipartisanship) did not give his quo.  The deal with McConnell, obviously not truly based on any belief on Manchin’s part that bipartisanship is an intrinsic good, fell through simply because McConnell turned out not to need Manchin’s vote.  

The facts in the case do not support the moral Manchin claimed to find in the story, which, according to Manchin was that partisan legislation was not good because it was not durable, (a position that exactly reflects a sentence in the right wing US Chamber of Commerce, March 4, 2021, letter to the US Senate arguing against modifying the filibuster rules.)  

"Imagine if major portions of federal policy constantly changed on a purely partisan basis every time one or the other party finds itself in unified control of the government. It is difficult to overstate the negative impact this would have on economic growth and investment, job creation, and the rule of law  and would be revised as soon as the opposing party regained power." 

The actual lesson for us in Manchin’s story is that he is a deal-pursuer-and-maker not for the sake of bipartisanship in itself, or for the general good of the country, but for the good of whatever narrower interests Manchin is pursuing in the given situation.  

A final question is why the matched set of three establishment, status quo journalists protest too much regarding questions about Manchin’s motivations.  Are they concerned about Joe being treated fairly, or are they concerned that the dissemination of too much of the truth about Joe will open up a can of worms revealing too much about their own paymasters in the corporate media/political establishment and the almost unbelievable extent of corruption in national politics? your social media marketing partner
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