Bernie Sanders Is Showing the Democrats How to Take on Joe Manchin

For months, Bernie Sanders has been making a case for the multitrillion-dollar reform bill he’s spearheaded in the Senate. Now, he’s taken that case to Joe Manchin’s home turf in West Virginia — and is facing backlash from the mainstream media for breaching the norms of Beltway etiquette.

Senator Bernie Sanders arrives to a news conference at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, 2021. (Stefani Reynolds / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Last Friday, Bernie Sanders published an op-ed in the West Virginia–based Charleston Gazette-Mail laying out the argument for the $3.5 trillion reconciliation package currently before the Senate. With his trademark message discipline, Sanders made a direct, accessible, and moral case for the key items in the bill, going on to note the strong opposition from corporate interests and cataclysmic wealth disparities that form the appalling backdrop of the current wranglings in Congress.

From start to finish, every word of the intervention was true: from Sanders’s claim that a majority of Americans stand to benefit from the bill’s passage (and support its most significant provisions), to his observation that the greatest source of opposition comes not only from the Republican Party but also “drug companies, the insurance companies, the fossil fuel industry and the billionaire class” who “want to maintain the status quo in which the very rich get richer while ordinary Americans continue to struggle to make ends meet.” Given his choice of newspaper, Sanders’s ultimate objective was quite clear — though, for what it’s worth, West Virginia’s coal baron Senator Joe Manchin, who, alongside Arizona’s Krysten Sinema is currently the biggest obstacle to the reconciliation package — received only a single passing mention in the second to last paragraph.

Needless to say, the response to Sanders’s op-ed, both from parts of the media and from Manchin himself, was entirely predictable. Leading the charge was prominent Iraq War booster and #resistance member Bill Kristol, who smugly questioned the strategic wisdom of publishing the piece. “Maybe there’s some brilliant strategy I don’t get here, but this attempt by Vermont socialist Bernie Sanders to publicly pressure Joe Manchin through an op-ed in a West Virginia paper seems at best pointless, and at worst reckless and likely to backfire.”

Ignoring, or at any rate giving only cursory attention to, the actual substance of Sanders’s op-ed, several outlets immediately opted to frame the exchange as an interpersonal war of words between two politicians: “U.S. Senator Manchin slams Bernie Sanders in battle over Biden spending plan” (Reuters); “Bernie Sanders wrote an op-ed to West Virginians. See Joe Manchin’s fiery response” (CNN); “Manchin slams Sanders for newspaper opinion article amid spending debate” (the Washington Post).

It’s more than a bit ironic, given the backlash to the comments Sanders made during a recent interview with Anderson Cooper, in which he noted the extent that the actual content of the reconciliation bill has been at best a secondary concern in much of the coverage:

One of the problems we have is that millions of Americans don’t know what’s in the bill. Because, I think, Congress has not done a good job, I don’t think the president has done a particularly good job. And the media, I think, has done a particularly bad job in talking about what is in this legislation.

Some members of the media may balk, but the way some outlets chose to frame Sanders’s Gazette-Mail op-ed very much affirmed his grievance. And it’s hardly the first time the reconciliation fight has been framed as pure spectacle, with the substantive political and human dimensions substituted for horserace theatrics. As media critic Adam Johnson noted earlier this month, major cable networks in particular have remained largely uninterested in the actual contents of the reconciliation package, preferring instead to wallow in a shallow “progressives versus moderates” melodrama that, at times, has failed to take even a perfunctory interest the legislative details of the bill.

Particularly emblematic of this approach is one October 2 discussion between CNN’s Jake Tapper and correspondents Jeremy Diamond and Lauren Fox. As Johnson noted of the roughly six minute segment:

Other than a single vague reference to “social safety net” spending, none of them actually mention anything that is actually in the bill. They discuss the matter for six whole minutes without mentioning Pell Grants, housing vouchers, community college tuition, dental and hearing coverage for seniors, expanded medicare coverage, repairing run-down schools, school lunch for poor children, or universal pre-K. The bill is just an abstraction—a vague “social program” being pushed by left-wingers, the substance of which is incidental. In lieu of examination of content, we get six minutes of horse race and speculation about the near-term political stakes and vague reference to “moderates” being “uncomfortable” with the “high price tag.”

In correctly calling out the media for its shallow coverage and then publishing an op-ed in a West Virginia newspaper, Sanders has once again violated the cherished norms of Beltway political etiquette. But the Vermont senator is, as usual, giving a masterclass in how politics can and should be practiced if the actual goal is to pass real legislation which even begins to meet the urgency of the moment and benefits ordinary people. In bypassing the theatrics of DC elite brokerage and making good faith policy arguments addressed directly to the electorate, he’s also pursuing a coherent and straightforward strategy — an approach apparently outside the comprehension of many of his critics.

In a properly functioning democracy, staking out clear positions and trying to rally popular support behind them wouldn’t be considered a fringe political style or an act beyond the bounds of political decency. Then again, in a properly functioning democracy, a coal baron senator wouldn’t be able to hold the future of the planet hostage at the behest of corporate donors and oligarchs.