Sen. Joe Manchin III on Wednesday outlined — yet again — why he won’t support the Democrats’ $3.5 trillion reconciliation package, outraging progressives who already think that number is too small. They can huff and puff all they want, but they won’t blow down the West Virginia Democrat’s house because he correctly reads public opinion.
Manchin’s words restate what he has said before: The nation’s fiscal situation is too dire to unnecessarily add to the country’s debt burden. He rightly references the looming fiscal cliffs that Social Security and Medicare face as their trust funds approach insolvency. But the most important line in his statement has nothing to do with the dollars and cents; it is about what the goal of new spending should be: “The amount we spend now must be balanced with what we need and can afford,” Manchin said, “not designed to reengineer the social and economic fabric of this nation.”
That sentiment is a dagger pointed at the heart of the progressive cause. Reengineering the fabric of American life is modern progressivism’s whole point. Its adherents believe that the nation is in crisis — a climate crisis, a systemic racism crisis, an economic inequality crisis. Crises demand immediate and wide-ranging action, not incremental change or tinkering around the edges. That’s why progressives hark back to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, a series of acts promulgated in the face of the crisis of the Great Depression that radically and fundamentally altered American life. Their insistence on this, which strikes many merely liberal Democratic ears as strident intransigence, is a feature, not a bug, of their worldview.
Their ambitions, however, can only prevail in a democracy if they are supported by public opinion. “Public sentiment is everything,” Abraham Lincoln once said. “With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed.” FDR succeeded because four years of a depression convinced a supermajority of Americans that their system was broken and needed radical change. There is no substantial evidence that Americans today believe that.
Start with the election results from last year. Joe Biden won a narrow majority of the popular vote against the only president in modern times to have never reached 50% job approval throughout his entire term. Democrats expected a landslide, but instead lost seats in the House and failed to take control of state legislatures in states such as Texas and Georgia that just two years prior had looked like they were turning blue. They gained narrow control of the Senate only because Georgia’s election law required Republican Sen. David Perdue to compete in a runoff, even though he outpolled his Democratic opponent, now-Sen. Jon Ossoff, on Election Day. A 50-50 election never augurs radical change.
Public opinion polls support this sober conclusion. More people disapprove of President Biden’s performance today than approve of it; in fact, his approval rating had began slipping among independents well before his disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan unfolded in August. Biden’s job approval among this key demographic was essentially split in late June, with 46% of independents approving of his job performance and 45% disapproving. Independents had turned against Biden by late July, with only 42% approving and 48% disapproving of his presidency. This erosion began just as public discussion of the reconciliation bill started to grow.
Other poll data suggest that key segments of the electorate agree with Manchin on his concerns about progressive goals to transform America. An August Echelon Insights poll showed that 49% of independents thought $3.5 trillion was too much to spend in reconciliation, compared with only 26% who thought it was either too little or the right amount. A September Ipsos poll found that the crises progressives think are imperative to address rank poorly among Americans’ views of the most important issue facing the country. Only 7% think the environment and climate is the most important issue while only 6% choose inequality and discrimination. Even Democrats ranked public health and the economy above these progressive priorities.
The progressives’ bête noire, Ronald Reagan, explained decades ago after the crushing defeat of Barry Goldwater: “Human nature resists change and goes over backward to avoid radical change.” Manchin, who has been winning elections since 1982, understands this; his progressive foes do not. That’s why he’ll stand firm no matter what pressure they impose, and why ultimately even Biden will have to bend the knee before him.
Henry Olsen is a Washington Post columnist and a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.