Last June, I was on a television show exploring West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin’s newfound role as the most powerful man in the Senate. He was, at the time, forcing his party and the Biden White House to tighten an infrastructure bill, and he opposed a voting rights bill that had zero Republican support.

When a party has a one-vote majority, any contrarian becomes instantly powerful.

Was there room in the Democratic Party for someone like Manchin, the host asked? That depended, I said, on whether the party was interested in the long game. “Are they looking at how to win future elections?”

Fast forward to today. A new poll by NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll found only 41% approving of Biden’s performance, a new low. Significantly, he earned the approval of just 29% among the all-important independent voters. 

Some analysts blame the new omicron variant of COVID-19 for the numbers. Or maybe a residual effect from the Afghanistan withdrawal debacle had something to do with it. But Americans also aren’t particularly wild about the “Build Back Better” bill, the subject of Manchin’s current one-man crusade. An NPR/Marist poll in early December found only 41% support for the bill nationwide, with 34% opposed and 25% undecided. 

Who knows why Americans are so tepid. Maybe, just maybe, they’re finally tired of all the spending, at a time when they have to pay about 7% more for everyday items than they did a year ago.

Supporters of “Build Back Better” say taxes on the rich and on corporations will pay for it. But, regardless how dubious that is, Washington politicians always attach the wrong narrative to new spending. The question shouldn’t be how to pay for expansive new programs. It should be how to pay for all the debt the federal government already is accumulating.

The national debt just passed $29 trillion, according to As the Peter J. Peterson Foundation notes, this is a threat to the nation’s future.

“The coronavirus pandemic rapidly accelerated our fiscal challenges, but we were already on an unsustainable path, with structural drivers that existed long before COVID,” the foundation’s website says, right before displaying a graphic that calculates the debt at $223,000 per household.

To be clear, this is not solely a Democratic problem. Republicans are just as responsible for overspending. The debt grew by more than $6 trillion under Donald Trump’s presidency.

Maybe Americans are beginning to see the madness in adding more spending before taking care of what we already have spent.

If not, Manchin is trying to remind them, saying overspending and inflation “are real and harmful to every hard-working American at the gasoline pumps, grocery stores and utility bills with no end in sight.”

The White House pounced early this week, accusing the senator of basing his decision on a report that doesn’t use the numbers the “Build Back Better” Act is proposing.

About that: The report was from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. Democrats wrote the bill to make some programs temporary, such as an expansion of child tax credits, child care and health care subsidies. Republicans asked the CBO to examine the bill’s impact over 10 years if those programs became permanent. 

The result was a report that took the projected overspending from a few billion to an estimated $3 trillion.

Was this dishonest? That depends on whether you think politicians who start a new program or benefit today will vote to end it in a few years when people have come to depend on it. Perhaps Congress and the White House will flip back to Republican control. In the past, that has had little effect on deficit spending.

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I don’t pretend to know whether Manchin is standing purely on principle or on politics. But it is clear he isn’t on a political limb as a Democrat in a Republican state. West Virginia voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump in 2020. A new poll by Mark Blankenship, of MBE Research, found West Virginians currently giving Manchin a 60% approval rating, with 74% saying he should stand firm against the bill.

You could call it a no-brainer.

The nature of politics has always been to represent the wishes of one’s constituency first, and the needs of the party second. Reelection is the name of the game. It’s what makes a representative democracy so effective, and interesting.

Next year will feature another bitterly fought struggle over control of Congress. The way it looks now, Manchin may be the only Democrat with a focus on the long game.

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