“Political headlines are of no value to the millions of Americans struggling to afford groceries and gas as inflation soars to 9.1 percent.” That is the sort of sentiment you’re hearing from Republicans across the country ahead of a midterm election cycle dominated by one issue: inflation. But this simple statement is not attributable to any Republican. It was the pronouncement of Sen. Joe Manchin’s spokesman Sam Runyon, and it was occasioned by the senator’s attempt to rescue his party once again from the consequences of its myopia.
Last Thursday, Manchin threw cold water on activists who hoped that the West Virginia lawmaker had suddenly warmed to the new federal spending initiatives he has spent more than a year opposing. Prolonged negotiations over a new legislative package that would hike taxes, expand Medicare, promote green energy, and penalize fossil-fuel producers had broken down. Though Manchin insists he remains open to raising taxes, easing prescription drug costs, and increasing federal spending on climate initiatives, there’s no way he could support the above proposals in the current economic climate. If Manchin’s objections were predictable, so is the apoplectic reaction among progressives.
“It seems odd that Sen. Manchin would choose as his legacy to be the one man who single-handedly doomed humanity,” the Center for American Progress’s John Podesta grieved. “This failure falls squarely on Joe Manchin,” said National Resources Defense Council President Manish Bapna, “as do the barren croplands, flooded homes, and incinerated communities that will result from this inaction.” Sen. Bernie Sanders accused Manchin of serving as a stalking horse for “Republican billionaires” and polluters, and being disingenuous about his true objective: “intentionally sabotaging the president’s agenda.” Evergreen Action Executive Director Jamal Raad said the senator “has betrayed the American public.”
These activists and lawmakers seem surprised by Manchin’s rationale for scuttling this proposal, but it is entirely unclear why. The West Virginia Democrat has said time and again that macroeconomic conditions were incompatible with major federal spending initiatives. Those conditions are only getting worse.
Last week, a key measure of inflationary pressure on the economy found consumer prices had risen to their highest rates in 40 years. In less than two years, prices have increased by more than 9 percent. In June alone, the price of consumer goods increased by an unsustainable 1.3 percent. The overheated economy has forced the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates at the fastest pace in decades, and more rate hikes are expected. The Fed’s activity raises the specter of recession, which would only exacerbate Americans’ worsening individual economic circumstances.
When Joe Manchin led Biden’s “Build Back Better” initiative to the chopping block late last year, he cited inflation as a primary motivating factor. “Given the current state of the economic recovery, it is simply irresponsible to continue spending at levels more suited to respond to a Great Depression or Great Recession,” Manchin said as early as August 2021. At the time, consumer prices had risen 5.3 percent in the space of a year. “Deficit reduction, inflation, being fiscally responsible,” he said after the package’s defeat, “sounds like something we should be talking about!” By then, the 12-month price increase was up to 7.9 percent. Why would Democrats convince themselves that Manchin had abandoned his consistent view on the matter when the external conditions that led to it are going in the wrong direction?
It would be politically foolish for Democrats to continue to exacerbate inflation by introducing more capital into an already overheated economy and targeting energy producers with punitive measures they’ll pass on to consumers. Likewise, while tax increases on “the wealthy” and corporations are not directly inflationary and remain popular in the abstract, goods producers are unlikely to stoically absorb their new cost burden. They, too, will pass on their new operating costs to consumers, who are already feeling the pain of high prices.
Inflation, and its capacity to reduce Americans’ purchasing power, is everyone’s priority. Poll after poll indicates that the cost of daily life is the most “urgent issue” facing voters, and they’re pessimistic about the future. A spring Washington Post poll found that two-thirds of respondents expected inflation to worsen. Moreover, voters have made the connection between federal profligacy and their deteriorating economic circumstances. In October 2021, pollsters Joel Benenson and Neil Newhouse found that nearly seven-in-ten voters agreed with the idea that “people will continue to pay more money on everyday expenses unless the government becomes more fiscally responsible.”
It would be an act of masochism for Democrats to appear to disregard these concerns by pursuing the very same profligate agenda they’ve retailed since 2020, even if they now contend that their docket of political priorities is somehow anti-inflationary. Though he’s likely speaking for a quiet minority of the Democratic caucus in Washington, it seems as though Joe Manchin alone has the courage to diagnose the malady afflicting the Democratic brand. Manchin’s stubbornness may even mitigate some of the losses his party expects to endure come November. It’s a modern marvel that his party so despises him for his efforts.