Americans typically like divided government and, on November 7, then-Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer gave them reason for that preference. Preceding a pair of run-off elections in Georgia that would decide whether Democrats would control the Senate in addition to the White House and the House of Representatives, he said: “Now we take Georgia, then we change the world. Now we take Georgia, then we change America.”
Americans had just elected whom they thought would be a moderate, measured president, and what they heard from Senator Schumer amounted to a battle cry for a sea change.
Concerns were already heightened that Democrats would take a less measured approach in the wake of presidential election debates about eliminating the filibuster, a key minority right that prevents a bare Senate majority from passing major legislation. There had also been debate in Democratic circles about packing the Supreme Court.
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Recognizing Democratic vulnerability on these points and the broader issue of temperate governance going forward, Joe Manchin, of West Virginia, playing the most avuncular moderate on the Democrats’ roster, was trotted out two days later to declare that “whether it be packing the courts or ending the filibuster, I will not vote to do that.”
Senator Manchin assured all that he wanted to “rest those fears” and would stand as a bulwark against more extreme maneuvers. The charm offensive in conjunction with Donald Trump’s back-and-forth position on whether Georgia Republicans should bother to vote at all enabled Democrats to seal their razor-thin majority in the Senate.
However, Senator Manchin’s love for his party has gone unrequited, as has his fidelity to the principle of the filibuster. From the beginning of the 117th Congress, he has been treated to a buffet of difficult votes and has had to take positions at times at odds with his party’s expansive legislative ambitions and, at times, at odds with his conservative home state.
Manchin was instrumental in cobbling together the $1.2-trillion infrastructure bill, yet he has received little praise for his efforts. But when he made possible Democrats’ control of the Senate and, thereby, the full legislative and executive levers of power, he might as well have painted a target on his back. Once he opened himself to the “talking filibuster,” effectively gutting the filibuster in all but name, he was never to be taken seriously again.
Sparing the Senate a painful fight and mixed press, Democrats quickly found they did not necessarily have to eliminate the filibuster but could use the available mechanism of budget reconciliation for passing massive legislation, albeit within certain limitations. This approach, coupled with Great Society ambitions on a threadbare majority, has led to the current predicament in which Senator Manchin finds himself.
Since the massive reconciliation bill was conceived, Democrats and the media have persisted in the narrative of an inscrutable Senator Manchin, who simply will not articulate what he wants in a deal, but his requirements have long been clear. Late last month, brought forth the revelation of a signed agreement between his office and Majority Leader Schumer, dated July 28. In it, Manchin outlined specific parameters for the reconciliation bill, yet the Democrats persisted steely-eyed when, on August 11, the Senate proceeded with their original $3.5-trillion bill.
Clearly, Manchin had not made his point, and he was consequently forced to put his foot down yet again in an article for the Wall Street Journal published on September 2 wherein he objected to the topline figure and pressed for a “strategic pause” in the reconciliation bill. Crickets again. Three days later, his assertion was met with an eye roll by President Biden’s chief of staff, Ron Klein, who said Manchin was “very persuadable.” Manchin’s barbaric yawp seemed to strike the powers that be as a whimper.
On September 29, Senator Manchin decided to release his own statement, writing, “I cannot — and will not — support trillions in spending or an all or nothing approach that ignores the brutal fiscal reality our nation faces.” He went on to tell reporters: “I’ve never been a liberal in any way shape or form. … I guess for them to get theirs, I guess elect more liberals. I’m not asking them to change. I’m willing to come from zero to $1.5 trillion.” Manchin claimed he wanted to avoid “changing our whole society into an entitlement mentality.” How much clearer could he have been?
Yet Manchin continues to endure slings and arrows from his own party. He has become the punching bag for progressives and has endured at least one public criticism by the president himself. Beyond the inaccuracy of the president’s claim that Senator Manchin votes more with Republicans than with Democrats (depending on how you slice it, he votes with the Democrats 61.5% of the time), this was hardly a thank you for his service to the party.
This is not to say Senator Manchin’s goodwill is inexhaustible. Democrats have increasingly abandoned the coal country voters who once were the base of the party in West Virginia. Whereas some argue that coal production has somewhat receded in economic impact within the state, 91% of West Virginia’s electricity comes from coal, and cultural affinity for and pride in the hydrocarbon run deep.
This is at odds with today’s Democratic platform, where the fossil fuel and industrial agendas are at odds with green ambitions. As green priorities increasingly win out within the party, frustration grows with industrial voters.
Once untenable policies like the Green New Deal have taken root within the party, and, as a result, Democrats have been leaking blue-collar voters like a sieve. A common explanation for why these voters are migrating to the Republican Party is to imply there are racist motivations by middle-class whites, but Hispanic and black blue-collar voters continue to migrate to the GOP in equal percentages.
West Virginia is not only economically (energy and mining) aligned with the Republican Party these days but is culturally (guns, abortion, wokeism) more consistent with Republican stances, and there may come a time when Joe Manchin will have to change parties to remain viable. The question could be not if but when he leaves. In departing, he would surely endure the enmity of Democrats, though many would understand his decision.
On the positive side, were Manchin to fully uproot, he would no doubt be welcomed with open arms by his Republican peers and likely retain his seniority, making a very light-footed step from one majority to another overnight. Yet another possibility is to eschew the “D” label and become an independent, thereby curiously paring under that non-affiliation a left-wing Bernie Sanders and a left-of-center Joe Manchin.
As Gerald F. Seib observed in his excellent article, “It is probably no exaggeration to say that Mr. Manchin is the only Democrat in the country who could hold his seat for his party.” Yet he also notes that “even the formidable Mr. Manchin isn’t holding that seat comfortably; he won re-election in 2018 by a 50% to 46% count against Republican Patrick Morrisey.” Not only that, his increasingly vulnerable seat is in a state that Trump won by 39 points in 2020. In the future, keeping his seat as a Democrat will be quite a trick.
It seems that rumors of Joe Manchin’s defection abound, and even Mother Jones is in on the act. This last case, which occurred earlier this week, met with a strong response from Manchin, who declared the reports of his switching parties “Bullshit” (“with a capital B’’). Yet no matter how many times Senator Manchin says “bullshit,” it doesn’t engender fidelity to the party when, say, Bernie Sanders carpetbags an op-ed into Machin’s backyard that contains a strait jab at Manchin in the penultimate paragraph.
Interestingly, Sanders might have added to the pressure for Manchin to vote against the bill when he wrote, “This reconciliation bill is being opposed by every Republican in Congress.” (Note to Senator Sanders: Heavily Trump-leaning West Virginia voters don’t necessarily “Feel the Bern.”) Nor did Manchin particularly appreciate Vice President Kamala Harris’ attempt on local West Virginia TV to turn the screws on a vote for the $1.9-trillion COVID-19 relief bill earlier this year. This, too, did not meet with a dispassionate response from Manchin.
Sometimes it’s “bullshit” until there simply is no choice. For nearly a decade, I worked as a staffer for a man of humor, kindness, intelligence and practicality. A lifelong Democrat like Joe Manchin, my former boss eventually had to switch parties to continue doing what he did so well: represent his constituents.
Moments before filing for reelection, he weighed whether to run as a Democrat or a Republican. Heading out the door, he told his staff to file the Republican paperwork (both had been prepared). By the time he arrived at his house, his wife, also a life-long Democrat who had heard the party switch story over the radio, met him at the front door, arms crossed, asking: “You got anything to tell me, big boy?” My boss would laugh and say that switch banished him from the bedroom to the sofa for a week.
Senator Manchin might end up sleeping on the couch for a while when it comes to his Democratic supporters, but were he to switch, he would no longer be the whipping boy for all that ails the party. He would no longer be subject to Joe Biden rousing himself for belated entreaties to vote for an agenda that is unpopular in West Virginia. No more would he be tied to a president who has lost a step, or maybe more, and whose poll numbers have declined substantially, including one that shows 35% of Americans say “mentally sharp” describes Biden “not at all well.”
In formally making the switch, Senator Manchin would merely echo what his state’s governor and potential billionaire Senate race opponent, Jim Justice, did in 2017, which could help shore up support with those back home questioning the current rash of trillion-dollar bills.
It also seems that the progressive wing wouldn’t even notice if Manchin and Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema left the party. Late last month on CNN, Representative Ilhan Omar said of the two senators: “It is saddening to see them use Republican talking points. We obviously didn’t envision having Republicans as part of our party, and I hope that they will understand that Democrats need to be united behind the president’s agenda.” Not content with hounding the pair, Democrats seem eager to foist them on Republicans and unite in the minority.
From Manchin’s perspective, both the passage and the failure of the reconciliation bill lead to difficult places. The former hastens his departure from the Senate or his party, and the latter heaps blame at his feet for destroying party unity and the Democrats’ ability to affect their priorities. The best West Virginia residents can hope for is that the bill fails as much for the country and West Virginia‘s economy as for the senator’s own prospects for keeping his seat. Despite the outcome, with a little more friendly fire from his own party, Democrats might soon wake up to a diminished party and the plaintive, “Say it ain’t so, Joe!”
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.