Bernie Sanders is the last person West Virginia wants to hear from

·4 min read
Bernie Sanders.
Bernie Sanders. Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock

It seems that Sens. Joe Manchin and Bernie Sanders have had quite enough of each other.

That's no surprise. Technically, both men are on the same Democratic team, but their divergent viewpoints test the limits of "big tent" politics. Manchin represents West Virginia, a deep red state, and has plenty of reasons to keep his conservative constituents happy. Sanders, meanwhile, is a democratic socialist from Vermont who is far enough to the left that he isn't actually a member of the party. They're an odd fit, but Democrats are going to need both men if they're to get any portion of President Biden's agenda through Congress. And right now, Manchin and Sanders are acting more like opponents than teammates.

On Friday, news broke that Manchin opposes Biden's proposed $150 billion Clean Energy Payment Program — a key pillar of White House efforts to address the increasingly urgent climate emergency — because of his worries about how West Virginia's coal and natural gas producers would be affected. The same day, Sanders published an op-ed in West Virginia's Charleston Gazette, singling out Manchin for his failure to help pass the $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill that includes Biden's climate provisions. Manchin responded angrily. "This isn't the first time an out-of-stater has tried to tell West Virginians what is best for them despite having no relationship to our state," he said, and later added: "No op-ed from a self-declared Independent socialist is going to change that." You could practically hear the growling.

It wasn't a great moment for Democratic unity, nor for the party's efforts to get some big and important legislation passed. While Manchin has taken a terrible stance on the clean electricity program, Sanders is precisely the wrong person to make that argument — to West Virginians, at least — and his op-ed was almost certainly counterproductive.

It's frustrating to watch Manchin block one of Biden's most potent climate efforts, if only because the problem has become so pressing. In August, the United Nations reported that swift action is needed around the world to limit the growing damage — longer wildfire seasons, lengthy droughts, stronger storms, devastating flooding — from global warming. Just last week, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration revealed the U.S. in 2021 has suffered 18 separate weather and climate disasters that have cost the country at least $1 billion each. (Hurricane Ida, which wreaked havoc from New Orleans to New York, is the most obvious example of the phenomenon.) Manchin's constituents are hardly exempt from the threat: The New York Times reported on Sunday that "no state in the contiguous United States is more exposed to flood damage than West Virginia." The senator might be able to save a few jobs in the short run, but it won't be long before his state and the world suffer the consequences of his obstruction.

So Sanders might have had the right message, but he was the wrong messenger — almost any other Democrat would have been better. The Mountain State is really, really conservative. Let's not forget that Donald Trump won two-thirds of the state's votes during last year's presidential election. Even if the state's residents might be persuadable on some elements of the Democrats' proposals, it's clear they're not much interested in aligning themselves with progressives. And of course Sanders isn't just any progressive: Along with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), he embodies the sort of lefty politics that is almost lab-manufactured to produce a tribal reaction and repel West Virginians, regardless of what he might be saying. In other words, Sanders may have inadvertently stiffened Manchin's opposition. Once again, progressives have been found wanting in the politically indispensable art of persuasion.

What's done is done. The question now is if and how Manchin can be persuaded to help pass a strong bill to fight climate change. It's tempting to look for a solution akin to the "Cornhusker Kickback" that helped secure the vote of Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) to pass ObamaCare a decade ago, but the current reconciliation bill is already loaded up with money to help West Virginians transition to a post-coal economy. Something more is needed, apparently.

You can't blame Manchin for trying to protect his constituents from becoming losers in a green economy, but he will be responsible if his efforts end up scuttling Democrats' work on the climate. And progressives, together with Biden, might want to be a bit smarter about how they go about getting Manchin on board. Sanders is not the right person to fix what Manchin is getting wrong.

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