Joe Manchin’s Voters Aren’t Letting Him Stop $2,000 Checks
The intense backlash to his recent comments criticizing $2,000 stimulus checks signal the growing momentum for guaranteed income programs—and the emerging power of voters who care more about substantive results than partisan skirmishes.
Jay Willis Jan 22, 2021
On the same day President Joe Biden sketched out the first details of his $1.9 trillion COVID-19 stimulus proposal earlier this month, West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, a fellow Democrat, dunked its most important component in a bucket of cold water. “Absolutely not. No,” he told The Washington Post, when asked if the party’s top priority should be sending out $2,000 stimulus payments—a pledge that Biden, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, and a multitude of other Democratic politicians made repeatedly on the campaign trail. “Getting people vaccinated, that’s job No. 1.”
When the interviewer pointed out that this position placed him directly at odds with party leadership, Manchin more or less shrugged. “That’s the beauty of our whole caucus,” he said. “We have a difference of opinion on that.”
Manchin went on to explain that he might back a more narrowly targeted round of checks, if he could be persuaded that the money would bring back some of the millions of jobs that evaporated during the pandemic. Even under this hypothetical set of self-imposed conditions, though, he seemed to remain philosophically opposed to the notion of giving people money, and wistfully invoked the New Deal championed by President Franklin Roosevelt almost a century ago. “I don’t know where in the hell $2,000 came from,” Manchin later said, a statement that could only be true if he had not watched TV or listened to any member of his party for the last several months. “Can’t we start some infrastructure program to help people, get ‘em back on their feet? Do we have to keep sending checks out?”
For Manchin, this question is apparently rhetorical. For the 1.8 million West Virginians he represents in Washington, it is assuredly not. An infrastructure job soon is of little use to a family that needs to buy groceries last week. Already among the nation’s poorest states before the pandemic hit, more than half of West Virginians are now struggling to cover their basic expenses, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Since Manchin is the most conservative member of a Senate Democratic caucus that must remain united to act without Republican support, his opposition to sending out checks signaled to many that Biden’s proposal was effectively dead before members of the 117th Congress would even have the chance to vote on it.
Manchin’s constituents wasted little time expressing their feelings on the subject. The backlash was “swift and vocal,” said Stephen Smith, a former Democratic gubernatorial candidate and co-chair of West Virginia Can’t Wait. “People of all stripes and all over the state were saying, ‘This is the difference between whether or not my family gets to stay in their home. This is the difference between whether my small business gets to stay alive. This is the difference between whether or not I get glasses.’”
In Beckley, a billboard went up portraying a bewildered-looking Manchin next to “HEY JOE! WHERE’S MY $2,000?”—and, just as importantly, next to his office’s phone number. Radio ads mocked him for accomplishing the rarest of feats in Washington these days: being out of step on an issue with both Trump and his Democratic counterparts. “Our senator, Joe Manchin, thinks he knows better than both our president and the Democrats in Congress,” the narrator said. “I guess Joe just don’t know what it’s been like to live through the pandemic.”