As congressional Democrats try to reach a deal on a broad package of social spending and climate change items by the end of the month, the two ideological poles of the party—Bernie Sanders and Joe Manchin—cannot stop chirping at each other. In press conferences, statements, aggressively placed op-eds, and stray comments to reporters, the most famous progressive and most famous conservative Democrat in the country are ably participating in the high senatorial tradition of talking past each other on the vital issues of the day.
Democratic leaders don’t like it when competing factions are publicly at each other’s throats, and reporters cover it. If it’s a P.R. problem you think you have, then there’s a P.R. solution that you are likely to seek: the all-important “one-on-one meeting,” which, according to Politico, “talks are underway” to organize between Sanders and Manchin, as if the two don’t already see each other several times a day when they’re in session.
If the meeting goes well, the two senators leave, tell reporters it was a “good conversation” and they “look forward to speaking again,” and refrain from writing op-eds in the other’s hometown newspaper for a period of time. If getting them in the same room goes poorly, there could be a “homicide,” as President Joe Biden joked with members earlier this month.
Biden’s quip was the second-shrewdest thing someone has said about the prospect of a Manchin-Sanders Summit. The shrewdest came from Sanders, when he was recently asked about sitting down with Manchin.
“This isn’t a movie,” he told reporters.
In other words, the public arguing between Manchin and Sanders isn’t principally a P.R. problem. It’s not a “feud,” either, about manners or stolen honor or some other dramatic Senate thing. And it’s not that they don’t understand each other. Manchin and Sanders have fundamental disagreements about the role of government and the needs to be addressed in what’s likely Democrats’ swan-song of major legislative activity under their governing trifecta. They have different interests, represent different people, come from different worlds. A meeting between them won’t solve these disputes.
Sanders views the Build Back Better Act as the moment he’s been building his entire career towards, an “unprecedented effort to finally address the long-neglected crises facing working families”—as he wrote in a West Virginia newspaper op-ed—and a return to the sort of ambitious progressive legislating not seen since the Great Society. It should, in his mind, at least bring the United States onto par with the welfare states of other advanced countries in assisting with the costs of child care and education, lowering child poverty and drug costs, and providing comprehensive medical care for seniors, among other things. He also views it as the last best chance to save the planet by addressing climate change (OK, I guess it’s sort of a movie). Sanders is 80 years old and a couple of years past a heart attack. He is finally in a position to usher through many of the ideas that Democrats spent most of his career dismissing as the fantasies of an otherwise-unemployable fringe Vermont kook. This is the big one for him, and it’s why he’s naming names when criticizing his Democratic colleagues holding him back.
Joe Manchin isn’t in the same ballpark. He views his offer to spend $1.5 trillion—twice what President Obama got for his big stimulus package, during the worst recession of most of our lifetimes, and with substantially higher Democratic margins in Congress—as a generous concession from his initial offer of zero dollars. He doesn’t want the United States to have the welfare state—or “entitlement society,” in his words—that Sanders envisions, doesn’t think Medicare should be expanded before its structural shortfalls are addressed, and is all het up about inflation. Sanders believes in universal public goods; Manchin believes in means-testing. Sanders wants to aggressively combat climate change; Manchin wants to protect home-state industry.
If they were just fighting about something stupid, like one accusing the other’s father of killing J.F.K., getting the two in a room, one-on-one, to work it out would be within the realm of the achievable. Here, they’re arguing over what elected officials should have arguments about—the size, scope, and resources of the federal government. No matter the number of Diet Cokes or the quality of the canapes therein, the private meeting room is unlikely to give either stubborn senator a eureka moment at this stage in his life.
The meeting room that Manchin and Sanders will have to be in, eventually, is the one with President Biden, when a final deal is brokered and all factions instructed to fall in line. The trouble you’re seeing Democrats have reaching this agreement stems from Democrats not having a natural 50 votes in the Senate, or 218 votes in the House, to do what they’re trying to do. What everyone agrees on, though, is the need for Joe Biden’s presidency—and the Democratic governing trifecta—to not go down as a failure. People on opposing ideological flanks can have as many one-on-one meetings as they want, or not. It’s only the meetings with the president where these disputes can be resolved.