A story surfaced last month that I thought would get more traction than it has. When it made The Rachel Maddow Show, I thought it might have some legs. But it’s gone dormant, at least for now.
It came from West Virginia, where the United Mine Workers unveiled a startling new plan — almost a manifesto. The union — which represents most of the hard-luck coal miners in West Virginia and Kentucky — admitted what everyone has long known: that coal is on a fast track to oblivion.
The union, therefore, is henceforth committing to a transition that phases out fossil fuels and phases in clean energy practices. Yes, you read that right.
In return, they’re asking the federal government for generous investments in their states to help them make that transition. They want tax incentives for renewable energy sources, preference in hiring for new jobs, extensive career retraining, and a bunch of other stuff geared towards digging miners out of a very deep hole and putting them, hopefully, on a new and more viable path forward.
In other words, if there’s a $2.3 trillion infrastructure bill on the table, they want a piece of it.
This is a remarkable development, a complete about-face from a decades-long denial of the obvious, something we haven’t seen a lot of lately. The plan takes a detailed, common-sense approach to the problem. It even shows some marketing savvy, positioning itself as a logical beneficiary of the largesse at the heart of whatever that infrastructure bill turns into.
The subtext for this, of course, is the scam Trump ran on coal country from the very beginning of his candidacy. He promised to bring back everybody’s job, and he used that promise as the pretext for rolling back every environmental rule he could shake an executive order at. Poisoning Americans is as much a part of the Trump brand as bullshit promises.
Still, Trump managed to spin the illusion — catnip to an audience of the deeply gullible — that he alone could save the coal industry. Which is, to be clear, something nobody could do. Not then, not ever. Coal was doomed in the marketplace long before Trump took office. It hasn’t gotten any less doomed since.
The UMW plan is an admission that objective reality might be worth considering in these difficult times. And in that sense, it was a bold step, conceding that change has to come soon, even to an industry deeply averse to change.
But it’s the politics of this that are even more remarkable, and it’s the politics that I’ve heard almost nothing about. Which forces me to speculate:
West Virginia is the home state of, yes, Sen. Joe Manchin, a name we hear a lot these days. And Manchin himself was right there at the plan’s unveiling, sharing the stage with the UMW president.
There he was, bestowing his full-throated endorsement on the plan, acting for all the world like its chances of becoming law were excellent, as opposed to nil. Knowing full well that he, Joe Manchin, would have to single-handedly bring down the filibuster to make it happen.
At this moment in history, the thin line between democracy and fascism runs through Joe Manchin. Together with Kyrsten Sinema — his fellow Democrat-In-Name-Only — he makes a great show of his desire to “work across the aisle,” hand in hand with his good friends in the GOP. Never mind that those friends are now fully complicit in violent insurrection, rampant voter suppression, legislative terrorism, and aggressive racism — not to mention the Big Lie. But I’m sure they’re very nice once you get to know them.
So is Manchin stupid? Probably not, though the jury is still out. He knows that without the votes of ten Republican senators, all those goodies he’s promising the UMW can only come through budget reconciliation or by changing the filibuster.
Manchin does not support either of these options. He keeps using the word “bipartisanship.” With a straight face.
But even as he maintains this shabby pretense, you have to wonder what he’s thinking with this UMW plan. Why would he make promises to his constituents that everyone in the world knows he can’t keep? Why would he put himself in the position of promoting a plan he knows he’ll take full blame for tanking?
Is he playing games, basking in the power he currently enjoys? Or does he intend, despite all indications, to help scuttle the filibuster, or at least modify it?
Whatever Manchin’s intentions, the infrastructure bill will be a substantial piece of pork, and you know he’d like to bring some of it home to his state. He has to be lobbying Biden about it, almost as if it were a real thing.
So is the UMW plan his bargaining chip? Is he saying, Joe to Joe, that a massive investment in his state is his price for nuking the filibuster?
I don’t know, and I don’t trust him even slightly. But I’m not seeing another explanation for his behavior. And it’s worth mentioning that this is exactly the sort of horse-trading that old pols like Biden and Manchin used to do all the time, back before Republicans sabotaged the entire legislative process. These guys go back. And they both know how to work a deal.
At the same time, this could put Mitch McConnell in an awkward position. His home state of Kentucky would, after all, be the other big beneficiary of that UMW pork. He can’t just ignore a potential windfall for his state.
Yet in his current role as villain-in-chief, Mitch would be obliged, not just to vote against the money, the jobs, and all the other goodies earmarked for his constituents, but also to insist that all fifty GOP senators vote against them too.
Senators used to lose their jobs over far less betrayal of their voters. Still, the smart money says Mitch won’t give a shit. He is now fully invested — with the rest of his caucus — in the rape and pillage of democracy.
Hard to say how this all plays out. But I’m thinking we haven’t heard the last of it. I hate to give Manchin any credit, even for behind-the-scenes machinations. And none of this has any bearing on the equally vexing Sinema problem.
But I have no doubt that winning these two over to the right side of history is a priority for Biden, Schumer, Pelosi, and any American looking for a way out of our current insanity.
It is no exaggeration to say that Joe Manchin, at least for now, is the swing vote for the fate of the entire American Experiment. That’s a strange position for anyone to be in, especially one so mediocre and undeserving. Yet that’s where we are.
The UMW plan seems to indicate that Manchin knows exactly the right thing to do. Whether he’ll actually do it is anyone’s guess.