WASHINGTON — From the moment Sen. Joe Manchin started raising concerns about President Joe Biden’s social spending bill, the outrage hurled at him from some fellow Democrats was pointed and personal.
Rep. Cori Bush of Missouri said Manchin’s position was “anti-Black, anti-child, anti-woman and anti-immigrant.” Rep. Jamaal Bowman of New York called Manchin “Exhibit A” of the Democratic Party’s “true problems.”
Manchin, for his part, has publicly questioned whether there is still room for his “fiscally responsible and socially compassionate” views in today’s Democratic Party, where the far-left Congressional Progressive Caucus has emerged as a dominant force in the House and the senator from West Virginia is often the party’s lone conservative voice on Capitol Hill.
“I would like to hope that there are still Democrats that feel like I do,” Manchin said in an interview with a West Virginia radio station. “Now, if there’s no Democrats like that, then they’ll have to push me wherever they want me.”
The intensifying anger directed at Manchin in recent weeks has brought renewed attention to a fundamental divide roiling the Democratic Party over its ideological identity. While Manchin represents an exception among Democrats in Congress — a right-of-center senator from a state that voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump — some in the party fear the bitter feelings toward him mirror Democrats’ broader disconnect with voters outside of liberal urban and suburban enclaves.
At stake is whether the Democratic Party in 2022, with control of Congress on the line, has morphed into a far-left force energized by its push for a progressive agenda, or a center-left coalition with a broader appeal in rural and small-town America and other communities with centrist or swing voters.
“There are some members in the Democratic Party that don’t understand some of the issues that affect more of the moderate areas in the country,” said former congresswoman Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, who points to far-left rhetoric such as calls to “defund the police” as a factor in her 2020 loss to a Republican challenger in a South Florida district. “It’s easy to take a stance on a far-left progressive issue when you don’t have to talk or reach out to constituents that are just not where you’re at.”
Former Michigan Gov. James Blanchard, called the attacks on Manchin evidence of a “classic struggle in our party between the protest wing and the practical wing.”
“And in terms of almost every national election, our practical wing wins,” said Blanchard, a Democrat who was governor from 1983 to 1991. “The protest wing does not, but I think in the House of Representatives, the protest wing has a lot more clout than they’ve had historically.”
Another former Democratic governor, Jim Hodges of South Carolina, attributed the left’s vitriol toward Manchin to the “wide gulf between the sort of MSNBC wing of the party and the average Democratic voter who got Joe Biden elected.”
“If we want to embrace strategies where we can actually get moderate Republicans and moderate Democrats and independents, we’ve got a chance of building a strong majority,” Hodges added, “but the language of the left has not been very inclusive of those points of view.”
The dissension comes at a crossroads for the Democratic Party, which holds a narrow trifecta in Washington, D.C., with lawmakers and activists eager to use the window to pass an expansive liberal agenda. But the slim majorities in Congress have forced Biden to find agreement across the ideological spectrum from Manchin to Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., a self-described democratic socialist.
Biden won the Democratic primary as a moderate in a historically crowded field, but some Democrats fear he has been pushed too far to the left by his staff and lawmakers — a development that has elevated Manchin as a key holdout on various pieces of legislation.
The president found early success in passing two major bills, but he now needs to trim down his ambitions for the Build Back Better legislation, and even if he gains Manchin’s support in the coming weeks, more skirmishes lie ahead. Liberals are anxious to scrap the Senate filibuster to pass voting rights legislation next year, and Biden has recently endorsed a carveout for that purpose. But Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., remain vehemently opposed to any changes to the procedure, which requires 60 votes to pass most legislation.
The larger questions about the Democratic Party also come as Trump continues to have an iron grasp on the Republican Party while pushing it further to the right. Some Democrats see Trump’s dominance as another opening to broaden the party’s big tent by consolidating and expanding on the gains they have made with independent and disaffected Republican voters since 2016.
But the ire directed at Manchin has rankled lawmakers and party officials who argue ostracizing the conservative senator from West Virginia is harmful to the party’s tent-building efforts.
Moreover, some Democrats argue, the focus on Manchin diverts attention from the fact that Republicans are opposing a plan that would bolster a range of programs to address health issues and climate change without offering any of their own policy solutions. While Manchin has pushed Democrats to pare back the legislation, he has nonetheless indicated a willingness to vote for $1.75 trillion in spending.
“It’s hugely counterproductive,” former Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., said about the attacks on Manchin. “We have to convince people that we’re competent, and no one looks at inner party squabbles as competency on the outside.”
She added: “Every time you criticize Joe Manchin, you’re not criticizing Ron Johnson for not wanting to do something about insulin prices.”
Not all members of the party’s left flank are ready to lambaste Manchin. Some point to the necessity for the party to include lawmakers like him to hold majorities in Congress.
“There’s absolutely room for Joe Manchin in our party, and we ought to be dialoguing with him and understanding his views of rural communities in his state and of Appalachia,” said Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., who served as a national co-chair of Bernie Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign.
But many liberal lawmakers have grown exasperated for being blamed for their party’s struggles, arguing that the party fails to pass policies that polls show are popular, including Medicare for All, a $15 minimum wage and free tuition at public colleges. To that point, after Manchin said he could not support the Build Back Better Act, Democrats circulated polling from a liberal group that showed the bill’s policies were popular in West Virginia.
“If we are a big tent as Democrats, which we are, like the country, every voice is as important as the next voice,” said Bowman, the New York representative who was elected to Congress in 2020 after defeating a longtime Democratic incumbent in a primary by running to his left. “And we need to stop blaming progressives in the Squad for all of the problems of the Democratic Party because that is not true.”
In her blistering statement accusing Manchin’s position of being “anti-Black,” Bush, who was elected in 2020 after gaining attention as a Black Lives Matter organizer in Ferguson, Missouri, said she did not trust his “assessment of what our communities need most.”
“When we talk about transformative change, we are talking about a bill that will benefit Black, brown and Indigenous communities,” she said. “Those same communities are overwhelmingly excluded from the bipartisan infrastructure bill. We cannot leave anyone behind.”
For decades, moderate and liberal Democrats have squabbled over policy and political strategy, and the debate over the Build Back Better legislation has resurfaced many of the questions the party sparred over in last year’s Democratic primary: Is the party moving too far to the left? Or has it not moved enough? How can the party make inroads with moderate voters? Or should the party focus on boosting turnout in urban areas and building new coalitions with younger, more diverse voters?
“The progressives would always say you have to excite people,” said former congressman Bart Gordon, D-Tenn., who retired from Congress in 2011 after serving for 26 years. “We have to take a more progressive position. The moderates would always say you have to win the middle, and nobody was convinced to change their position. But that same discussion would go on every time and with the same people, and that’s what’s happening now.”
Center-left Democrats argue that Biden’s victory in the primary settled those questions and created a model for success. Black voters powered Biden to win the Democratic primary, and moderate and suburban voters helped him overcome Trump’s strength in rural areas. New York Mayor-elect Eric Adams, who defeated several more-liberal candidates in his own primary, further validated their argument that the base of the Democratic Party is much closer to Biden and Adams’ moderate politics than the democratic socialist vision espoused by Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y.
But Biden’s presidency has amplified the party’s fault lines, and Manchin, in particular, has become the center of much of the agitation.
Earlier this month, in a Fox News interview, Manchin said he could not vote to move forward on the social spending bill because of concerns over rising inflation and the growing national debt. (Supporters of the legislation dismiss these concerns as unfounded.)
The statement stunned Democrats who felt they were close to passing the bill. The turnabout also enraged liberal lawmakers, most of whom voted to pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill under an agreement that Build Back Better would pass shortly afterward.
Even the White House released a scathing statement after Manchin’s interview: White House press secretary Jen Psaki said his comments marked a “breach of his commitments” to Biden and his congressional colleagues. The browbeating prompted Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to intensify his pitch for Manchin to join the Republican Party.
Most Democrats are not overly concerned Manchin will switch parties and give Republicans the majority, but they fear alienating him in a split Senate only damages their legislative and electoral prospects.
Democrats will return to Washington in the new year and attempt to restart negotiations on the Build Back Better bill. The president, who spoke with Manchin after they clashed, expressed optimism before Christmas about securing a deal.
But the larger questions about the future of the Democratic Party remain a potent undercurrent to the negotiations, particularly as the party heads into what is widely expected to be a difficult midterm election cycle.
“As Mo Udall said, when Democrats organize the firing squad, we usually do it in a circle,” said former Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, who sought the Democratic nomination for president in 2020. “So certainly, we see some of that, but I think the party needs to make sure the message that we’re putting out is both competitive everywhere, and that we actually start delivering everywhere.”
The Washington Post’s Marianna Sotomayor contributed to this report.