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Robert Reich: You Really Want To Know Why Manchin And Sinema Came Out Against Voting Rights? – opEd

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What can possibly explain Manchin’s and Sinema’s votes against voting rights this week? Why did they create a false narrative that the legislation had to be “bipartisan” when everyone — themselves included — knew bipartisanship was impossible? Why did they say they couldn’t support changing the filibuster rules when only last month they voted for an exception to the filibuster that allowed debt ceiling legislation to pass with only Democratic votes? Why did they co-sponsor voting rights legislation and then vote to kill the very same legislation? Why did Manchin vote for the “talking filibuster” in 2011 yet vote against it now?

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I’ve suggested that the answer to all these questions could be found in the giant wads of corporate cash flowing into their campaign coffers. But as I’ve watched the two senators closely and spoken about them with members of Congress as well as Hill staff, I’ve come to the conclusion this isn’t it – or at least not all of it.

The corporate money explanation leaves out the single biggest factor affecting almost all national politicians I’ve dealt with: Big egos. Manchin’s and Sinema’s are now among the biggest.

Before February of last year, almost no one outside West Virginia had ever heard of Joe Manchin, and almost no one outside of Arizona (and probably few within the state) had ever heard of Kyrsten Sinema. Now, they’re notorious. They’re Washington celebrities. Their photos grace every major news outlet in America.

This sort of attention is addictive. Once it seeps into the bloodstream, it becomes an all-consuming force. I’ve known politicians who have become permanently and irrevocably intoxicated by it.

I’m not talking simply about power, although that’s certainly part of it. I’m talking about narcissism – the primal force driving so much of modern America, but whose essence is concentrated in certain places such as Wall Street, Hollywood, and the United States Senate.

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Once addicted, the pathologically narcissistic politician can become petty in the extreme, taking every slight as a deep personal insult. I’m told that Manchin asked Biden’s staff not to blame him for the delay of “Build Back Better,” and was then infuriated when Biden suggested Manchin bore some of the responsibility. “You want to understand why Manchin stabbed Biden in the back on voting rights?” one House member told me this week. “It’s because he’s so pissed off at Ron Klain [Biden’s chief of staff].”

Paradoxically, a large enough slight played out on the national stage can also enthrall a pathologically narcissistic politician. Several people on the Hill who have watched Sinema at close range since she became a senator tell me she relished all the negative attention she got when she gave her very theatrical thumbs down to increasing the minimum wage, and since then has thrilled at her burgeoning role as a spoiler.

The Senate is not the world’s greatest deliberative body, but it is the world’s greatest stew of egos battling for attention. Every senator believes he or she has what it takes to be president. Most believe they’re far more competent than whoever occupies the Oval Office. Yet out of one hundred senators, only a handful are chosen for interviews on the Sunday talk shows, only one or two are lampooned on SNL, and very few get a realistic shot at the presidency. The result is intense competition for national attention.

Again and again, I’ve watched worthy legislation sink because particular senators didn’t feel they were getting enough credit, or enough personal attention from a president, or insufficient press attention, or unwanted press attention, or that another senator (sometimes from the same party) was getting too much attention.

Barack Obama didn’t enjoy glad-handing senators, even though he got to the presidency through that august body — which proved a huge handicap when it came to legislating. Bill Clinton would talk to senators (or, for that matter, to almost anyone else) all the time, but Clinton had too much confidence in his own charm to give individual senators the ego boosts they wanted — thereby rubbing the most narcissistic of them the wrong way (Nebraska senator Bob Kerrey voted against Clinton’s healthcare plan because he wanted more attention; New York senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan was lukewarm on it because he felt he wasn’t adequately consulted).

Some senators get so whacky in the national limelight that they can’t function without it. Trump had that effect on Republicans. Before Trump, Lindsay Graham was almost a normal human being. Then Trump directed a huge amp of national attention Graham’s way — transmogrifying Graham into a bizarro creature who’d say anything Trump wanted in order to keep the attention coming.

Not all senators are egomaniacs, of course. I had the good fortune to work closely with the late Paul Wellstone, who was always eager to give others credit while being the first to take any blame. I know several now serving who have their egos firmly in check — including Mark Kelly, Raphael Warnock, Sherrod Brown, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren. Most of the rest lie on an ego spectrum ranging from inflated to pathological.

Manchin and Sinema are near the extreme. As I said, neither had much national attention prior to the last February. But once they got a taste of the national spotlight, they couldn’t let go. They must have figured that the only way they could keep the spotlight focused on themselves was by threatening to do what they finally did this week — shafting American democracy.

Robert Reich

Robert B. Reich is Chancellor's Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley and Senior Fellow at the Blum Center for Developing Economies, and writes at robertreich.substack.com. Reich served as Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration, for which Time Magazine named him one of the ten most effective cabinet secretaries of the twentieth century. He has written fifteen books, including the best sellers "Aftershock", "The Work of Nations," and"Beyond Outrage," and, his most recent, "The Common Good," which is available in bookstores now. He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine, chairman of Common Cause, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and co-creator of the award-winning documentary, "Inequality For All." He's co-creator of the Netflix original documentary "Saving Capitalism," which is streaming now.

22 thoughts on “Robert Reich: You Really Want To Know Why Manchin And Sinema Came Out Against Voting Rights? – opEd

  • January 23, 2022 at 2:37 am
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    Oh right, Bernie Sanders has no ego! NOT

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    • January 23, 2022 at 3:25 pm
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      The Reason why you have 5 conservative supreme court justices is because Harry Reid changed the rules and got rid of filibuster to confirm a judge to the supreme court . I remember when this happened Senator Grassley said it will change the supreme court forever. When other party is in power , they going to try to ram through their legislation ,the filibuster exist to have bi partisan support to slow down absolute power , The Democratic s use the filibuster over 300 times to slow down Trump’s agenda , now they want to get rid of it , the 2 Democratic senators are really try save Democrat party , they know in future that Democrats will lose house and Senate and maybe the presidency , and other party will ram through there laws and bills , and the filibuster protect s the minority party.

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    • January 23, 2022 at 4:23 pm
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      I think you are right, Mike, about Bernie Sanders. But it doesn’t negate the basic premise of this article if Reich is wrong or biased about Bernie Sanders. Sinema and Manchin did shaft democracy. And by the way, Reich is saying the majority of Senators, past and present, are like this. I sometimes think about how insane someone has to be a politician. It’s an ugly business, but people will expose themselves to grueling campaigns, ridicule and exposure. I wouldn’t do it. So why do it? I think Reich has the why in this article. The next comment asks what will they do if Democrats lose the majority. Not only did they make it more likely, but it is probably inevitable and they know it. Why not go down famous or infamous.

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    • January 23, 2022 at 6:22 pm
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      They all have egos, he is talking about a super ego, borderline narcissistic.

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    • January 24, 2022 at 2:48 am
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      They were representing voters, something most democrats ignore.

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    • January 25, 2022 at 3:07 pm
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      He didn’t say he doesn’t have an ego. He said he has it in check. They all have egos. So do you and I. The point is that his isn’t so out of control, he’ll sink progress, at least not in the Senate.

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  • January 23, 2022 at 2:48 am
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    What will Manchin and Sinema do if the Democrats lose their majority in the Senate and those two go back to being insignificant again?

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    • January 23, 2022 at 11:07 pm
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      Let’s be clear. These two *are* insignificant. They just happen to be getting a lot of attention for their egoic, childish intransigency. Think about it. Any one or two other random Democrats could have stepped into these ‘spoiler’ shoes. There’s absolutely nothing exemplary or unique or even particularly cunning about Manchin or Sinema. Their infantile narcissism has just run amok.

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  • January 23, 2022 at 2:56 am
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    While you may be correct there is an alternative motive. May be just maybe Manchin and Sinema want no part of destroying the Senate. You have been in politics long enough that if the Senate can pass legislation in a bipartisan manner is it really good for the country. Forget the current mentality of it’s all or nothing for my team, cause we are right, and the rest have to accept it. It doesn’t work that way.
    So we end the filibuster and the Democrats pass their BBB and voting right bills, but what happens when the Republicans are in power and want to end abortion rights what then? Was ending the filibuster worth it?

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    • January 25, 2022 at 3:11 pm
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      I’m so tired of “What will Republicans do if Democrats start passing stuff?” Republicans have already carved up the filibuster, and they have already had control and they do what they want! We have to pass meaningful legislation that people will want, so people will see that the country is better with Democrats in office!

      Also, bipartisanship is crap. It’s great when it happens, but it’s not more important than protecting voting rights, the environment, health care rights, etc. Calling for bipartisanship right now is calling for a minority of Senators representing a minority of the country, and are acting in bad faith, to have an equal say. It will halt any process. The Republicans have 1 goal – making sure Democrats don’t do anything successful. You can’t have bipartisanship with that.

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  • January 23, 2022 at 3:07 am
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    I have always respected the opions and insights of Robert Reich. I so totally agree that out leadership has lost their way in their own quest for power and prestige.

    We need term limits and the ability to move the entrenched out of politics ( ideally forever) after each individual term is complete.

    I also see this narcissistic trend driving Machiavellian behavior accross and into our political system.

    Great article.

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  • January 23, 2022 at 4:09 am
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    You mistake his fervor for social based safety nets as egotistical behavior? Perhaps you just don’t understand why programs like Social Security and Medicare were integrated into government( voted into law on many of these programs) to help all citizens ? One very good reason for these and similar programs are blatantly obvious to anyone who can see behind the smoke blown by Conservative Think Tanks and the billionaire funding of Conservative media.No one, who isn’t very wealthy, has the means to stand on their own for health care or money to put away for the time they can no longer work much less afford legal assistance if/when they need it for any number of reasons that may happen to them in their lifetime. Unless you are very wealthy, I can guarantee you will need some form of social based assistance our society provides to the majority of our citizens and don’t forget education or Firemen and Police or anything out taxes pay for because it’s ALL Socialist and so is Bernie.

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  • January 23, 2022 at 5:10 am
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    Thank You Robert Reich! Always Appreciate Your Points.
    Wende Irick

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  • January 23, 2022 at 5:42 am
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    Great article, could not agree more. However, what is the role of the party senate leader in all of this? GOP leaders seem to do a better job in keeping these oversized egos in check.

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  • January 23, 2022 at 7:32 am
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    Excellent take and right on for these two “DINO’s”. They and the 50 Republicans will own this failure, especially, when Republicans take over Congress due to voter suppression and Trump is a viable candidate again. Where are the 10 Republicans (Romney, Collins, etc.) that voted to impeach Trump, can’t they see this topic is just as critical?

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  • January 23, 2022 at 12:58 pm
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    Maybe the combo of ego AND MONEY is too much to resist.

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  • January 23, 2022 at 3:49 pm
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    This article is sickening, in that the author cannot even attest to having spoken to either of them them once, much less knowing them personally. Whatever one believes about the filibuster, to engage in character assassination based on speculation in this manner is simply despicable. I am no longer a fan of Mr. Reich, and I am considering the idea that he is the narcissist.

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  • January 23, 2022 at 4:02 pm
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    Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. But the root of all is power attracts the corruptable.

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  • January 23, 2022 at 8:03 pm
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    Perhaps, by some stroke of stastical improbabiliy, you are correct in identifying the motives of two different people in two different situations. I will opt for at least the possibility that, as elected officials, they were acting with the greater good in mind. The fact that you ignore that as even a possibility speaks much more about you than them.

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  • January 23, 2022 at 9:28 pm
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    What a load of nonsense. Btw the “voter rights bill” has nothing to do with voters rights. The USA had the largest minority voter turnout in history for the last presidential election and the Left claims minority votes are being suppressed. It’s actually racist to suggest that minorities are not capable of following the same current rules as everyone else. California has no voter ID, automatic voter registration of illegal aliens when they get drivers licenses and “vote harvesting”. All those make it easier to cheat and they are being proposed by the democrats for the whole country. It’s a smokescreen to make the system easier to game… Good bye democracy….

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  • January 23, 2022 at 9:30 pm
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    Yeah it was quite clear from Manchin’s reaction to the “leak” that this is mostly about his frail, inflated ego. He protesteths super hard that he doesn’t care about his public image, which is another thing that shows he obviously does. He seems pretty simpleminded for a senator TBH

    I don’t know if the best response is to Sinema and Manchin is to avoid crossing their egos. But after months and months of negotiation, that definitely didn’t work. So I hope phase 2 is to incinerate their egos by turning their entire world against them.

    Milkshakes need a comeback. Even Trump would bend when everyone was against him. Narcissists never stop craving their reference group’s approval, even when it doesn’t look like it.

    The question is who are their reference groups? When you’re just a black hole of selfishness stuffed with coal or a broken narcissistic goblin with Hello Kitty President fantasies, whose opinion actually matters to you? Obviously not voters. That would require democracy to function like a rational system, instead of running entirely on lies.

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