Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat whose persistent belief in bipartisan compromise has suddenly made him the most powerful person in Congress, was accused last weekend of being naive.
Petty partisanship sells. No one really wants to compromise and lose the ability to demonize the other side, right?
Well, if the accusation is true, Manchin joins a long list of naive leaders dating back to the nation’s Founding Fathers. The very idea of the United States was premised on the audacious idea that millions of people from different ethnic backgrounds, races, religions, traditions, occupations, geographic areas and world views could self-govern through a system devised of elected representatives whose power was limited by a series of checks and balances.
Surely, few things could have been more naive in the late 18th century than to believe in that kind of cooperation, at a time when virtually all other nations were held together by ethnic identity and cultural homogenization. Even though the United States was much more homogenous then than today, its regional differences among states were stark.
Yet the idea has worked, and it has survived wave after wave of immigration and assimilation. And when bipartisan cooperation has been achieved (think the Civil Rights Act, the Americans With Disabilities Act and the Hatch-Kennedy State Children’s Health Insurance Program, among many others), it has worked brilliantly.
The idea requires cooperation, compromise and trust, which thrive only under conditions of civility.
We agree with former European commissioner for external relations, Chris Patten, who wrote in a 2009 op-ed for Politico: “Civility in politics is not simply political confectionery. A leader who respects his or her opponents is more likely to earn respect himself than one who doubts their patriotism and resents their criticism.”
Too often, however, the leaders who doubt patriotism and resent criticism get all the attention these days. They don’t point the way toward solutions. They point toward division and inaction, and they destroy the trust that is so valuable in a free society.
Manchin, from West Virginia, is suddenly powerful because his opposition to Biden’s infrastructure bill, as currently written, and to the voting rights bill and an effort to end the Senate filibuster have upset a razor-thin Democratic majority in the Senate. He is in a unique position to broker compromises and force a real dialog. And he remains stubbornly optimistic that this, rather than inaction, can win the day.
When confronted by Fox News host Chris Wallace, who wondered if he was naive, Manchin said he had “all the confidence in the world” that a deal could be reached on an infrastructure bill, despite talks seeming to stall between the White House and Republican negotiator Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, also of West Virginia.
Manchin noted that the president’s plan already had come down from $2.3 trillion to $1.7 trillion, while Republicans had increased their counter-offer. Real compromise takes time, and patience.
When majorities are small, compromises are more likely. On the other hand, when majorities force their will (think Obamacare), matters rarely remain settled for long.
Democracies don’t prosper when twinned with raw power. Pure partisanship either causes ineffective solutions to teeter back and forth as majorities change, or they foster legislative paralysis.
All Americans should join Manchin in his naive quest for something better. Not only is compromise possible, it is an important part of the nation’s fabric.