Opinion

KOLB: Joe Manchin Could Broker A ‘Build Back Better’ Bipartisan Compromise On One Vital Issue

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Charles Kolb Deputy Assistant to George H.W. Bush
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Country music has never been especially popular in progressive metropolitan centers like New York City and San Francisco. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer have probably never heard Nashville-born Lorrie Morgan’s hit tune, “What Part of No Don’t You Understand?”

Throughout this year, Democratic West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin has repeatedly expressed his reservations about the progressive Democrats’ wish list known as the “Build Back Better” bill. Manchin said “no” to the initial $6 trillion total cost; “no” to budgetary gimmicks; “no” to the Senate’s procedural irregularities; and “no” to the absence of spending priorities.

On Dec. 19, Manchin finally said “no” to the entire exercise, prompting howls from progressives and strident denunciations from the White House. And these geniuses now want Manchin to support their next major gambit on voting rights or filibuster reform?

In nixing BBB, Manchin cited the need to address pressing national priorities such as inflation, the nearly $30 trillion national debt, the exploding Omicron variant and several potential foreign policy flashpoints.

If Manchin wants the Senate to restore its regular order of working through committees charged with specific legislative jurisdictions rather than cramming everything into a monstrous reconciliation package, then perhaps he should consider switching parties, because Schumer and his band of zealous leftists simply cannot appreciate Manchin’s perspective.

Weeks ago, Manchin urged a “pause” that would push BBB into 2022. The reason was to assess the nation’s inflation trajectory, establish which programs were truly national priorities and separate out the individual BBB legislative items and work them through the normal committee hearing process.

If they are smart, Democrats will embrace Manchin’s approach next year and seek bipartisan policy compromises. There’s no better BBB priority on which to seek a deal with Republicans than universal pre-kindergarten education.

Manchin favors targeted, means-tested, high-quality, pre-K programs. Bipartisan political leaders have urged such efforts for decades with few results.

Emerging from President George H.W. Bush’s 1989 Charlottesville, Virginia, education summit with 49 of the nation’s governors came six national education goals, one of which was that by the year 2000, all children would start school ready to learn. Then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, who helped shape the Charlottesville goals, embraced them during his presidency. Nonetheless, all six goals foundered.

With its crèche and ecole maternelle programs, France offers perhaps the best approach in the world to quality pre-K education. We should learn from that experience.

Business leaders know that if there’s a problem with whatever they’re producing — manufacturing or services — it’s cheaper and more efficient to fix those shortcomings sooner, not later. But … we’d rather spend billions of remediation dollars on Title I and Head Start programs than address our youngest children’s earliest education needs upfront.

University of Chicago Nobel laureate in economics James Heckman has identified a roughly seven-to-one return on every dollar invested in a targeted, high-quality, pre-K program.

So here’s the potential bipartisan 2022 political compromise: Democrats get a means-tested, high-quality pre-K program, while Republicans get comparable resources to expand gifted-and-talented K-12 programs.

This compromise gives progressives a policy victory while enabling Republicans to counter “woke” education policies that explicitly reject merit and excellence. Outgoing New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, for example, proposes eliminating all of that city’s gifted-and-talented programs.

China’s new hypersonic ballistic missiles are today’s equivalent of 1957’s “Sputnik moment” when the Soviets beat us into space. To outcompete China, we must embrace educational merit and excellence throughout our entire education system.

Democrats in 2022 must show progress on their domestic agenda. Education is important for them.

There are signs, however, that Hispanic Americans are drifting away from the Democrats’ “woke” education agenda, and Asian Americans have long appreciated educational excellence and merit. Virginia’s recent elections demonstrated the potency of education issues across racial and ethnic divides when it came to COVID lockdowns and distance learning, “woke” school boards and curricula, and dubious gender identification policies.

A backlash is coming: back-to-basics concepts like merit and excellence are beginning to surge.

With pre-K education, Democrats in 2022 can achieve an important progressive goal, while Republican support for targeted pre-K will please their business constituents and millions of parents.

At issue, though, is whether there’s a political consensus supporting merit and excellence. Moderates in both parties can make this happen. But if a progressive minority continues to push its “woke” education agenda, today’s Democratic Congressional majorities will vanish a year from now.

Charles Kolb served as Deputy Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy from 1990-1992 in the George H.W. Bush White House