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Joe Manchin sank Biden’s agenda. Democrats are lucky to have him.

James Carville on why Manchin is actually good, Sinema less so, and why 2022 isn’t quite hopeless yet.

Joe Biden, his wife Jill Biden, Kamala Harris, and her husband Douglas Emhoff, onstage after Biden’s Democratic National Convention acceptance speech on August 20, 2020.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

President Joe Biden’s agenda has stalled, Democrats are in disarray, and one villain looms especially large in the Democratic base’s mind: West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin.

You can see where the critics are coming from. Manchin’s refusal to budge on issues like voting rights, his incoherent defense of the filibuster, and his opposition to programs like the child tax credit, which would so obviously help his constituents escape poverty, are hard to accept from this vantage.

But I (and most of Manchin’s vocal online critics) don’t live in West Virginia, a state that Trump won by 39 percentage points. All things considered, Democrats are probably lucky to have him and that seat. And they’re going to need him down the road when it comes time to fill the next Supreme Court opening.

So I called longtime Democratic strategist James Carville, someone I’ve interviewed before (here and here), to talk about the Manchin dilemma. I often disagree with Carville, but he has a way of cutting through the bullshit and getting right to the heart of the thing. I wanted to know not only what he makes of Manchin but what he thinks Democrats should do when their entire agenda is being nuked by two of their own senators (Sen. Krysten Sinema of Arizona being the other).

Predictably, the conversation went off in many different directions. We ended up discussing the weakened state of the Democratic brand, why he believes the party is “addicted to hopeless causes,” my own skepticism that Democrats can simply message their way out of all their problems, and the elections that Democrats worried about democracy should actually be paying attention to.

A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Sean Illing

We’re talking right after the Democrats’ attempt to pass voting rights legislation failed in the Senate. The failure isn’t surprising to anyone following the process, but what do you make of how the Democrats and this White House handled it?

James Carville

We tend to look at President Biden and we think, “Well, look at what President Clinton did,” or, “Look what President Obama did.” The simple fact is they had large congressional majorities. We don’t have any. You get a party or a coalition as wide as this coalition, it’s a pretty predictable result that you’re going to come up short on something like this.

The lesson to take from it is we have a fairly favorable Senate map in 2022. So I got a better idea: Let’s try to elect a couple, three more Democratic senators. That way, you’ll be able to do more. It’s not all over now. We have to understand that.

Sean Illing

Okay, fine, we’ll get to that, but I guess I’m asking you that question as a strategist. Why would the White House pursue something they must’ve known would fail?

James Carville

I think that what they would say is we keep negotiating right up to the end. You got to remember that there’s a paper-thin majority in the House and a 50-50 Senate. You can ask a lot of party unity, but Jesus, they only lost two out of 50. I understand people’s frustration, but for God’s sake, the answer to it is not to get mad at Democrats. The answer is to go out and elect more Democrats.

Sean Illing

All right, let’s not pass over the elephant in the room. Those two votes you mentioned are obviously Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema. I’ll start with Manchin, who I know you have strong feelings about. I confess to being totally exasperated by him. I don’t know if you have a defense of Manchin, but give me your unified theory of him.

James Carville

Understand that Joe Manchin is a Roman Catholic Democrat in a state in which not a single county has voted Democrat [for president] since 2008. I repeat: not a single county has voted Democrat since 2008.

Politics is about choices, and he’s up for reelection in 2024. If Manchin runs for reelection, I’ll do everything I can to help him because it’s either going to be Joe Manchin or Marsha Blackburn. It ain’t Joe Manchin or Ed Markey. You got to understand that. It’s really that damn simple.

Now the situation with Sinema in Arizona is an entirely different situation—

Sean Illing

What kind of game is Sinema playing?

James Carville

I can’t explain it, and no one else can. The only explanation people have given is that she wants to be the next John McCain. But she’s not going to win a primary against Rep. Ruben Gallego, I’ll tell you that damn much. And I will personally volunteer to help him fundraise because I think we can keep that seat if he runs.

Sean Illing

Do you think she thinks she’s going to be president one day?

James Carville

I’ve never met her, I have no idea what the hell she’s thinking. I’ve talked to people who know her and the only theory they have that makes any sense is that she views herself as some kind McCain-esque maverick. But look, I’m out of gas on this one. I really am.

Sean Illing

Before we get into the big-picture stuff for the Dems, I want to go back to Manchin for a second. I get the strategic argument you’re making, but honestly, do you have any substantive criticisms of Manchin? Do you think his opposition to something like expanding the child tax credit is defensible? Or his position on the filibuster?

James Carville

Look, the child tax credit is extraordinary. We’ve reduced child poverty in this country by 40 percent. It’s unbelievable. And I just keep trying and trying to win elections because this thing is enormously successful. But I’ll just keep saying it: If we don’t have Sen. Manchin, we’re going to have somebody really, really, really extreme in his seat.

Look, I’m a liberal Democrat. Always have been. But some of these people bitching about Manchin can’t see political reality straight. Six percent of adults in this country identify as “progressive.” Only 11 or 12 percent of Democrats identify as progressive. So let’s just meet in the middle and say something like 7 or 8 percent of the country agrees with the progressive left. This ain’t a goddamn debate anymore. Someone like Manchin is closer to the mainstream than a lot of these people think, and pretending like he isn’t won’t help the cause.

Sean Illing

The issue with Manchin (well, one of the issues) is that we’re not even talking about ultra-progressive policies. Manchin is blocking widely popular, mostly centrist policies and that’s what pisses people off —

James Carville

Okay, fine, but I’ll go back to my earlier point: If we want to pass more liberal policies, we need to elect more Democrats. Period. End of story.

Sean Illing

What makes you think most Democrats don’t understand that?

James Carville

Just look at how Democrats organize and spend money. For Christ’s sake, [South Carolina Democrat] Jaime Harrison raised over $100 million only to lose his Senate race to Lindsey Graham by 10 points. Amy McGrath runs for Senate in Kentucky and raises over $90 million only to get crushed by Mitch McConnell.

They were always going to lose those races, but Democrats keep doing this stupid shit. They’re too damn emotional. Democrats obsess over high-profile races they can’t win because that’s where all the attention is. We’re addicted to hopeless causes.

What about the secretary of state in Wisconsin? Or the attorney general race in Michigan? How much money are Democrats and progressives around the country sending to those candidates? I’m telling you, if Democrats are worried about voting rights and election integrity, then these are the sorts of races they should support and volunteer for, because this is where the action is and this is where things will be decided.

You know who is paying attention to these races? The Republican Party. Last I checked, Republicans raised $33 million for secretary of state races around the country. The Democrats had until recently raised $1 million. I think it’s now up to $4 million. That’s the story, right there. That’s the difference, right there. Bitching about a Democratic senator in West Virginia is missing the damn plot.

Sean Illing

All right, we agree entirely about that, so let me push back on something related you said to me the last time we spoke. You were railing against “wokeness” and begging Democrats to change the way they talk about issues like race and police reform in order to win the power you say they need.

If you set aside political Twitter and the activist discourse, they basically did that. You don’t hear many prominent Democrats talking about defunding the police or critical race theory. They’re pretty explicitly not foregrounding these things, and yet it doesn’t seem to matter —

James Carville

First of all, like I said, only 11 percent of the Democratic Party is progressive. It’s the smallest part of the party. But the problem is they make 70 percent of the noise —

Sean Illing

On Twitter?

James Carville

Yes, but also in newsrooms and academia and all over the foundations. All I can tell you is that this is what people hear. And what it’s done is weaken our political immune system. People believe this is what the party represents. “They want to defund the police.” “They want open borders.” “They want to empty the jails.” It’s defining the party.

Sean Illing

Okay, I’ll take the bait here because you’re hitting on a huge complaint of mine and I don’t think a lot of people — you included — are really grappling with it. You’re talking about perceptions and narratives and how the party is “defined.” And you want Democrats to speak plainly and not say and do things most voters don’t like so that they can salvage their national brand. Fair enough.

But I’m not at all convinced that Democrats can message their way out of this problem. Republicans have built a self-contained media ecosystem that delivers their version of reality straight to their voters, whereas the Dems still rely on traditional media to communicate their message. That’s the whole damn game, James. In the end, what voters hear is more important than what Democrats say, and they’re not hearing what Democrats want them to hear.

James Carville

It’s a difficult situation, you’re right. And most of the appeal for the Republican Party is cultural. And it goes deep. I mean, if you look at who’s dying of Covid, it’s a lot of pro-Trump anti-vaxxers. These people are willing to place their own lives in jeopardy. We can’t do anything about that. We can’t change that.

The good news is, as we showed in 2018, and President Biden showed in 2020, if you’re smart and you talk about things people care about, you can win elections. It’s not like it used to be, where you can move massive numbers of people with good messaging. But I still believe that 2018 and 2020 showed that if you engage in the fundamentals of politics, you can win elections in the United States.

Sean Illing

Okay, but between what Democrats say and what the voters hear is a layer of conservative media that exists solely to scramble Democratic messaging. A messaging campaign only works if it allows you to dictate issue salience, and I don’t think Democrats can reliably do that anymore.

James Carville

Look, there are also real problems. We have 7 percent inflation, right? We’ve had rising crime. The pandemic just won’t go away. The Russians are threatening to invade Ukraine. What people have is a sense of disorder, and that will kill you every time in politics.

Now, most people don’t think we’re going to have 7 percent inflation by November. A lot of people think that we’ll turn a corner with the pandemic after this latest burst. And if we’re still looking at high Covid rates and high inflation in November, Democrats are going to lose anyway.

But yes, right now what the general public is reacting to, more than Democratic messaging, is a sense of disorder in the country. It’s just hard to break through [with] a message in that kind of environment.

Sean Illing

You were also saying last year that Biden needs to focus on material issues and help people in concrete ways. It hasn’t been perfect, but he’s done this, and he’s followed a pretty universalist path. Despite all the legislative failures, he did pass a $1.9 trillion rescue package and basically sent $1,400 checks to every American — and it barely moved the needle. Party preference has flipped overwhelmingly against the Democrats.

Again, I feel like everything goes back to this messaging problem. Take the January 6 insurrection. Last time we spoke, you said Democrats “have to make the Republicans own that insurrection every day. They have to pound it.” They’ve done this. They’re holding hearings. They’re sounding the alarm about democracy. It’s not working. It’s not landing.

James Carville

I agree that it’s not landing now. And yeah, the media playing field isn’t favorable. No way around that. But the only thing to do here is to fight for more power in the smartest ways possible. And keep pounding the most powerful message you have to the most people you can. Over and over again.

I’ll tell you a quick story. Andrew Young and Martin Luther King Jr. were flying back from Oslo just after King had won the Nobel Prize. And King says, “Let’s stop at the White House and see President Johnson.” So of course LBJ keeps them waiting for eight hours or something like that. And finally they come in, tell the president they appreciate his help with civil rights legislation, but they say they also got to have voting rights. LBJ says he’s out of gas and that he just doesn’t have the political power to do it.

So Young and King travel back to Atlanta and King says, “The president needs more power. Let’s go out and get him some.” They started the marches. They started the sit-ins. They started organizing the churches and the unions. They completely understood the need for political power and they fought like hell for it.

Part of Biden’s lack of power is because the Republicans see that the Democrats are whiny. They can feel that weakness in the Democratic coalition. And I’ve been dealing with it since the ’80s. There’s a significant part of the Democratic Party that doesn’t mind losing if it allows them to be pure. We’re obsessed with purity. That has got to stop.

We’ve got to do whatever it takes to get more political power and that means we’ve got to win some elections. Just win some goddamn elections. This is not a time to complain. It’s a time to act. So let’s talk about real things, in real language, to real people. And if we do that, we can still save the country.