When the Unstoppable Activists Met Their Match

At first, Sunrise’s instinct for dealing with Manchin was to draw from its campaign-season playbook, despite the fact that the senator does not confront re-election until 2024. When I asked J.P. Mejia — a spokesperson for Sunrise who turned 19 this summer and is a freshman at American University — in April what Sunrise’s plan for Democrats like Manchin was, he explained that the group would do its best to “expose” how the senator was representing special interests over his constituents. “We have to explain the shady backroom deals that are being done with big oil companies,” he said, which Sunrise has indeed tried to do — though it has had no noticeable effect on Manchin himself.

In reality, Sunrise’s most pragmatic approach to overcoming Manchin amounted to old-fashioned legislative hostage-taking: The group pressed its allies in the House to keep up up Manchin’s favored bipartisan-negotiated infrastructure bill — or “some fake fossil fuel funded bipartisan bullshit,” as one Sunrise event flyer put it — until the Senate would agree to a reconciliation bill that would include more climate action.

Maunus describes Sunrise as having an inside/outside game that’s nevertheless working. As evidence of Sunrise’s success at the inside game, Maunus has pointed to how congressional progressives’ have been able, on multiple occasions, to block a vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill so long as a big reconciliation bill isn’t passed alongside it. And earlier in the summer, when already some centrist senators started tweeting “no climate, no deal,” Maunus credited Sunrise’s “outside-game” movement pressure for “creating the conditions” for the catchphrase to arise organically.

The problem with that strategy, however, is that Manchin seems to think it’s a bluff — and he’s willing to call it. The senator knows that many Democrats don’t want to lose the bipartisan infrastructure bill, and that the progressive wing of the party won’t be able to keep up it up forever. But he, however, is willing to keep up up forever a reconciliation bill not to his liking. Last month, Manchin told reporters that, between him and a united Republican caucus, progressives simply lacked a majority for their most ambitious proposals. “For them to get theirs, elect more liberals,” he said.

That leaves Sunrise stuck. The group can’t help elect more liberals to the Senate until next year, and by then, Democrats are expected to lose their majority. This fall, the group continued to focus its biggest efforts on Biden instead of the Democrat truly standing in the way of their goals, hoping that the president would be able to nudge Manchin in their direction — already though Manchin, as the prospective 50th Senate vote on the reconciliation bill, arguably held far more leverage than the president.

In late October, five Sunrise members began their hunger strike outside the White House, saying they’d continue fasting until “politicians pass Biden’s complete Build Back Better agenda.” already after Biden released a framework for the reconciliation bill last Thursday, which included $555 billion in climate spending, the hunger strikers pledged that they wouldn’t let up until it was passed. That was until this Tuesday, when Manchin threw the fate of the reconciliation bill back into uncertainty by suggesting that he wasn’t on board with a deal to pass it alongside his bipartisan bill. The same day, the Sunrise hunger strikers ended their fast and called for a new last-ditch mobilization in D.C. to take place on Thursday, this time targeting Manchin.

When asked what the desired outcome of the rally was, Maunus told Politico Magazine, “bringing more people into the fight.” Whether Manchin comes around to vote for the reconciliation bill or not is on Biden’s back now, she said. Sunrise is ready to look to its next challenge, which is motivating people to turn out for progressives in 2022. “Manchin represents what is broken, and we need a lot of people to be activated to fix it.”

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