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Democrats’ Dilemma on Manchin: Bash Him, or Bash Big Oil Instead?

Democrats looking to salvage some kind of victory from the smoking ruins of their climate policy have two basic options, political strategists say: slam Senator Joe Manchin, or take the wood to Big Oil.

So far, President Biden, a creature of the Senate who prides himself on his bipartisan instincts, has been reluctant to do either.

Enter Manchin, the centrist West Virginia Democrat who toyed with embracing Biden’s legislative agenda on climate, only to torpedo it after months of dithering on his end and, frankly, wishful thinking from the White House and its allies.

On Friday, Manchin finally told congressional Democrats he could not support roughly $300 billion in tax incentives for clean energy like solar and wind power, ideas that had remained in discussion after the Build Back Better talks collapsed in December.

“Inflation is absolutely killing many, many people,” Manchin said on a West Virginia radio show. “Can’t we wait to make sure that we do nothing to add to that?”

Manchin’s latest dagger has left Democrats scrambling to coalesce around a next-best option that includes allowing Medicare to negotiate prices for prescription drugs and some technical fixes to the Affordable Care Act.

The president no longer seems willing to wait on Manchin to come around. On Wednesday, the Biden administration rolled out its latest series of executive actions on climate, including $2.3 billion in funding for states to build “cooling centers” and fresh support for offshore wind farms. But it would take a monumental effort by Congress to more effectively address a threat that scientists warn is accelerating.

In the shorter term, the danger to Biden’s presidency is an existential one. There’s widespread anxiety on the left that young Democrats in particular will be discouraged by Manchin’s apostasy and by party leaders’ inability to take major action, and might stay home in droves in November.

That was likely to happen anyway, to some extent, based on who traditionally votes in midterm elections. As the Democratic data firm Catalist concluded in a postelection analysis, thousands of young voters sat on their hands last fall during the governor’s race in Virginia. But given just how micrometer-thin the margins are likely to be in some of this year’s big Senate races, even minor differences in youth turnout matter.

What’s a struggling political party to do?

As the White House knows well, voters need a villain — and Biden tried to supply them with a few plausible options last winter, at the outset of the war in Ukraine.

There was “Putin’s price hike,” a talking point blaming the Russian leader for the explosion of gas and grocery prices. And there was an effort to point out how, for instance, the consolidation of the meatpacking industry has led to monopolistic behavior — and hence, higher prices for hamburgers and chicken wings.

Neither of those approaches was backed by a sustained political effort to hammer home that message, however, while prices kept rising. The average price of a gallon of gas in the United States is $4.47, according to AAA. That’s down about 50 cents from a month ago, when prices kissed the psychologically important $5 barrier, but it’s still unacceptably high to most Americans.

Democrats have also found it unhelpful that their side is full of smarty-pants experts who disagreed with bashing energy and food companies, and undermined the substantive case for doing so in the press.

Liberal pundits, notably Jonathan Chait and Matthew Yglesias, call this phenomenon “the hack gap” — the notion that Democrats are politically cursed because their allies in academia and the think tank world are just too honest and outspoken about what they believe, as opposed to Republican analysts, who in this telling are either all too willing to say what politicians want to hear, or keep their true opinions to themselves.

The paradigmatic example is Larry Summers, who was a Treasury secretary under Bill Clinton and also served as Harvard’s president. Summers has been an omnipresent thorn in Biden’s side, and he presciently warned last spring that inflation was coming when the president’s economists were still pooh-poohing that prediction.

But now, says Paul Begala, a longtime Democratic strategist who is close to the administration, it’s time for Biden to start whacking energy companies for allegedly gouging the American public at the pump. He has calculated that the federal government spends $14.9 billion each year to subsidize oil companies, compared with $14.2 billion on school lunches for needy children.

In Begala’s estimation, a contrast like that ought to be a political winner for Biden. “You know, a hungry third-grader never charged me $5 a gallon for gas,” he quipped.

Some Democratic politicians have been urging a similar approach for months, notably Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. Others on the left, such as Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, have gone directly at Manchin, accusing him of “intentionally sabotaging” Biden’s agenda and even threatening to back a primary challenger against him when he’s next up for re-election in 2024.

Begala is skeptical that attacking Manchin, the 50th Democratic vote in the Senate, would be a winning strategy.

He recounted how, as a young adviser to the Democratic National Committee, he and his fellow Democrats bashed Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama for resisting President Clinton’s proposed tax increase. As a Democrat from a deep-red state, Shelby was essentially the Manchin of his day.

In February 1993, when Vice President Al Gore visited Shelby’s Senate office to try to cajole him into supporting the tax hike, Shelby ambushed the White House by organizing television coverage of their meeting in Alabama. When a reporter asked his thoughts on Clinton’s plan, Shelby denounced it as “high on taxes, low on cuts.”

Weeks later, to underscore his point, Shelby greeted the assembled Capitol Hill press corps in Statuary Hall with the line “the taxman cometh.” He also ripped Clinton’s health-care plan as “ill-conceived, unworkable and unwanted by the American people.”

White House officials, furious at what they saw as a betrayal, tried to punish Shelby by relocating jobs from a NASA facility in Huntsville, Ala., to Houston’s Johnson Space Center — then clumsily leaked the move to the press.

And what happened? Shelby switched parties just one day after the G.O.P. won control of Congress during the 1994 midterms, and went on to serve as a Republican senator for the next 28 years. His former chief of staff, Katie Britt, has inherited the political machine he built and is on a glide path to succeed him in office.

“We overreacted to what was a perfectly understandable position for an Alabama Democrat,” Begala recalled.

The lesson, he added, is to pick such intraparty fights with great care.

“There’s two kind of political parties, just like there’s two kinds of churches,” Begala said, attributing the aphorism to Mark Shields, the late political operative and PBS analyst. “Those who seek out converts and those who hunt down heretics.”

The Moderate Party is still fighting to get off the ground in New Jersey.

The fledgling organization, which announced its formation six weeks ago, filed a lawsuit on Wednesday appealing the state’s rejection of the party’s petition to place Representative Tom Malinowski on its ballot line in November.

Malinowski is one of the most endangered Democrats in Congress, and his district grew even more Republican-friendly after the latest redistricting cycle. Essentially, he drew the short straw, while other New Jersey Democrats got more favorable treatment from state lawmakers.

The idea behind the lawsuit, as I wrote about in June, is to persuade the state’s Supreme Court to rule that so-called fusion voting is legal in New Jersey.

Under fusion voting, a common practice in New York and a few other states, voters can cast their ballots for, say, a Democrat, but do so under the branding of the Working Families Party. Proponents of the system argue that it allows the public greater choices without creating “spoiler” third parties that siphon votes away from the major parties.

For Malinowski, the benefit would be to try to channel disaffected Republicans into voting for this new entity, rather than the Democratic Party, which they have spent their adult lives fighting against.

The party’s attempt to change the mind of Tahesha Way, New Jersey’s secretary of state, failed miserably this week.

On a Zoom call with reporters on Wednesday, Richard A. Wolfe, a New Jersey lawyer and longtime Republican who is a co-chairman of the nascent party, said it was more important to “get it right” than to file the lawsuit quickly.

But now there’s little time left before a Sept. 24 deadline for printing military ballots to settle the dispute — which would mean that Malinowski will probably have to win or lose his seat on the Democratic ticket alone.

— Blake

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