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Joe Manchin's paid family leave stance is selfish and misguided

It's hard to believe how wrong Manchin is on this one.

I’m going to start off this column saying something nice about Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. Unlike certain other senators, Manchin has always been more than willing to explain his views to reporters.

During these interviews, he’s consistently reminded interviewers that he’s from a conservative state and that the Democrats need to keep his constituents in mind when setting policy. That’s why, he told CNN on Thursday, he’s against the House reinserting paid family leave into the pared down Build Back Better Act.

“We can't go too far left. This is not a center-left or left country. We are a center, if anything a center-right country, that’s being shown,” Manchin said. “And we oughta be able to recognize that."

I’ll be blunt: That was some genuine Mountain State gibberish from Manchin. His claim that America is truly a center-right country is one that barely holds up on its own, to say nothing of its inability to support denying paid family and medical leave to millions of Americans.

Manchin isn’t alone in his insistence that voters punish Democrats for swinging too far left (whatever that means) in their economic programs. But as Eric Levitz wrote in The New York Times in 2017, there’s little actual evidence to back up that idea:

In truth, the Republican Party’s dominance has little to do with the American electorate’s “center-right” ideology. We know this for two simple reasons: First, the vast majority of that electorate has no ideology, whatsoever. And second, when polled on discrete policy questions, Americans consistently express majoritarian support for a left-of-center economic agenda.

That second point is definitely true in West Virginia. A recent poll commissioned by Americans for Tax Fairness found that support for the Build Back Better Act among Manchin’s constituents spiked when they learned that it was paid for through tax hikes on the very wealthy. And the BlueGreen Alliance found 54 percent of West Virginians surveyed in late September consider helping “working families with paid family/medical leave” a very important reason to pass the Build Back Better Act.

On a more anecdotal level, The Guardian spoke last month with several residents who voted for former President Donald Trump but still back the Democrats’ social spending plans:

“We’re dealing with people who are wealthy. What do they understand about people like ourselves who are trying to keep their heads above water?” said [Joseph A] Scalise, who says he is a conservative Republican who voted for Trump in 2016 and 2020. “It’s time for them to stop having these little wars among each other and start thinking about the American people again.”

Scalise, 67, once worked as a welder in the coal mines, a good-paying job. Now he is a health aid for children with disabilities, making $13 an hour. He says he supports the Build Back Better plan because its proposed changes to healthcare will help the families he serves and improvements to the nation’s infrastructure will get more people back to work.

Now Manchin to his credit says that he isn’t against paid family leave — he’s against paid family leave being enacted as part of the $1.75 trillion reconciliation bill that Democrats have been hammering out. "That's a piece of legislation that really is needed from the standpoint: if we do it and do it right," he told CNN, adding that he wanted to see a program that more heavily involves buy-in from employers. "We can do that in a bipartisan way. We can make sure it is lasting."

Manchin's claim that America is truly a center-right country is one that barely holds up on its own.

That would make sense if it weren’t for the fact that there’s already bipartisan support for paid family and medical leave that goes beyond what the House is pushing to include. A 2016 survey from the National Partnership for Women & Families found that 66 percent of Republicans would support a law establishing a fund that allows “all workers in the U.S. to take up to 12 weeks of leave from their jobs with some pay when they need to care for a new baby or adopted child, have a serious illness, or need to care for a seriously ill family member.”

More recently, Morning Consult found in August that 62 percent of Republican women are in favor of the Democrats' including paid family and medical leave into their bill. The same is true for 55 percent of self-identified conservatives. You read that correctly — not the center-right, but the full on right wing is for this provision.

It’s hard to see how that data squares with Manchin’s “this is a center-right country” argument. Nobody is clamoring to make paid leave into something that’s treated as another employment benefit instead of a federally guaranteed program. The only reason I can see for nixing something so popular from the current bill is entirely political on Manchin’s part — and selfish.

See, if Manchin can figure out a version of paid leave that Republicans can vote for outside of the rest of the social spending, he once again gets to be hailed as Washington’s dealmaking king. If it’s just another policy inside the Build Back Better Act, passed with only Democratic votes, there’s no real upside to Manchin’s brand.

In the end, Manchin once again has shown himself to be more interested in the process than the outcome when it comes to how laws are made. This misfocus is only made worse by his incorrect assumptions about America’s status as a “center” country. And as long as he continues to buy into it, he’ll continue blocking progressive policies that would help all Americans instead of just a few.

That makes for a perfect self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s been a full generation since we’ve seen what it looks like when the federal government is committed to passing progressive laws. I get the feeling that Manchin’s biggest fear isn’t that Americans will reject Democrats if that happens again. His biggest fear is that they’ll embrace Democrats, rendering Manchin’s ever-shifting centrism obsolete.