Politics

Joe Manchin wants to save Democrats from themselves

With the deadline approaching, Democratic leaders were trying to line up the votes to pass their bill. But they had a problem: Joe Manchin had put his foot down.

The year was 1983, the setting was West Virginia’s statehouse in Charleston, and the deadline was the end of the legislative session at midnight. Democratic leaders wanted to pass a bill creating a board that could cap rates charged by hospitals in the state. Manchin, a 35-year-old first-term state representative, had opposed the proposal.

Dave Lieber, who was then a reporter for the Charleston Gazette, has written about what he saw happen that night. As the House of Delegates — Manchin’s chamber — was taking a series of votes, Manchin was “over in the Senate, he was kneeling at the desk of the Senate clerk, a really in-your-face move,” Lieber told Vox. Manchin, who had been elected just four months ago, was negotiating.

Around 11:20 pm, Manchin’s support for the hospital bill suddenly materialized, and the bill passed. Immediately after that, legislators unexpectedly brought up a new bill, one that would let physical therapists treat people without referrals from doctors. An uncle of Manchin’s was a physical therapist. And, Lieber recounted, one state senator opined to him, “they’re paying Manchin off.” A deal had apparently been made — though Manchin wouldn’t admit it when Lieber asked him.

This sequence of events is familiar for Democrats, where Manchin is the 50th vote needed to pass anything that doesn’t have Republican support (a liberal colleague greeted him with “your highness” earlier this year). Just last month, Manchin threw the party’s plans for President Joe Biden’s carefully negotiated $1.9 trillion stimulus bill into chaos, when he said he’d vote for a Republican amendment to cut off expanded unemployment benefits sooner. After a half-day long scramble, eventually resulting in some relatively minor changes, Manchin came back on board, and the bill passed in a party-line vote.

Manchin speaks during a news conference on a bipartisan Covid-19 relief proposal on December 14. He was a key player in negotiations with Republicans on the package.
Caroline Brehman/CQ-Roll Call/Getty Images

This month, Manchin put his foot down again. Spurning calls among progressives for changes to the Senate’s rules that could allow Democrats to pass all bills with a simple majority, he wrote in a Washington Post op-ed: “There is no circumstance in which I will vote to eliminate or weaken the filibuster.” If he holds firm on this, Democrats will be drastically limited in what they can achieve legislatively, effectively dooming the party’s bills on immigration reform, gun background checks, union protections, policing reform, and voting rights in anything like their current forms.

“The op-ed was as clear as it could be,” Manchin told Vox in an interview last week. “If you want to argue about it for two years, then you’re going to waste a lot of your energy and your time.”

Manchin represents a more conservative state than any other Democrat in the US Senate; he identifies as pro-life, pro-gun, and pro-business. He has frequently voted with Republicans, and when asked about “defund the police,” he once responded, “Defund, my butt.” But so far this year he has backed nearly all of Biden’s nominees, and his vote has had a tendency to materialize when Democrats really need it.

Yet Manchin says the nation’s political ills come from too much extremism and unwillingness to compromise on, yes, both sides. In his view, this explains everything from congressional dysfunction to the storming of the Capitol to the electoral collapse of the Democratic Party in his state. He says the national party has gone too “far on the extremes” and fallen out of touch with “how most people live their lives.”

Democrats are increasingly concluding that the Senate, and the political system, is broken. But Manchin thinks he’s saving the country from an even worse fate: “violent swings” from one party’s total control over the law to the other’s. “I truly believe in my heart of hearts, if we get rid of the filibuster, we would lose the purpose of this democracy, of this republic, which is for the people,” he said. “Not on my watch is that gonna happen.”

“It might happen on somebody else’s watch,” he added. “God help us as a country if it does.”

Where Manchin came from

Manchin wasn’t the first politician in his family. One of his uncles, A. James Manchin, who’s been dubbed “perhaps the most colorful politician in West Virginia history,” was secretary of state when Joe negotiated that deal in 1983 (A. James would later become state treasurer and end up impeached for financial mismanagement). Manchin’s grandfather and father had both served as mayor of Farmington, the coal mining town where Joe was born. His grandfather owned a grocery store, his father a furniture store. Another uncle was one of 78 coal workers who died in the 1968 Farmington mine disaster.

The Manchin name helped Joe get his foothold in politics, but to advance further, he’d have to throw some sharp elbows. After just over a year in the state House, he tried to jump to the state Senate by challenging an incumbent Democrat in 1984. But that incumbent was backed by the West Virginia Education Association, and the teachers union engineered a challenge to whether Manchin truly lived in the district. He didn’t — he had listed a post office box as his address — so the state supreme court threw him off the ballot. This didn’t keep Manchin down long, because his onetime opponent had a stroke and resigned soon after winning. Manchin sorted out the residency issue and won the open seat in a special election two years later.

Joe Manchin wants to save Democrats from themselves

Joe Manchin (middle) stands with his wife, Gayle Manchin, as he is sworn in as West Virginia secretary of state by his uncle, Del. A. James Manchin, in 2001.
Bob Bird/AP

Opposition from unions would be the frequent backdrop to Manchin’s early career. He was a conservative Democrat and widely viewed as a candidate of business interests (he started his own business, the coal brokerage Enersystems, in 1989). In the state Senate, Manchin backed a proposal to overhaul West Virginia’s worker’s compensation system that labor cried foul over. This would prove a problem when he made his first run for governor in 1996, and the state’s unions lined up behind his opponent — a former state senator, coal miner’s daughter, teacher, and staunch liberal named Charlotte Pritt.

The race got infamously nasty. After pledging not to run any negative ads, Manchin ran one claiming Pritt supported sex education for first-graders (Pritt’s team said this was distorting the meaning of a bill she’d backed). Pritt fought back with her own ad claiming Manchin’s business caused 400 coal miners to lose their jobs (Manchin was furious and insisted this was completely untrue). In the end, Pritt ended up winning the primary by a 7-point margin.

During the primary, Manchin had signed a pledge to support the Democratic Party’s nominee (intending this as a club against Pritt, who had refused to do this in the previous governor’s race). But after months of silence, Manchin roiled the contest in October by announcing that he would not support Pritt due to her lack of “integrity and character.” Manchin claimed that he’d attempted to mend fences, but that Pritt had refused to renounce her attack on him about the coal miners’ jobs.

A few weeks later, Pritt lost to the Republican nominee, and many gave at least some of the blame to Manchin. Others blamed Pritt for mishandling her relations with not only Manchin but much of the party’s establishment. Manchin told me that the state was just changing. “All my union friends who basically had a vast network and a big membership” weren’t “controlling the voters anymore,” he said. “People were just voting more on their personal social agenda.”

The real turning point in Manchin’s career, though, was what came next. Rather than seek further retribution, he made an intense effort to woo Pritt’s backers. That included the unions who had backed Pritt. It also included her campaign manager Michael Plante, who had been behind many of the attacks Manchin so resented (“For Joe Manchin to question anyone’s integrity is like being called ugly by a frog,” Plante had said during the race).

“Mike had this huge filing cabinet of anti-Manchin research,” said Democratic state Del. Barbara Fleischauer. “And I remember him saying, you wouldn’t believe it, Joe Manchin called me today and said, ‘I’m gonna run someday for governor again and I would rather you be on my side than against me.’”

Manchin had hit his ceiling as the factional candidate of business. Rather than be at war with unions, he wanted to assure them that he was someone they could work with — to get them at least willing to live with him. He and Pritt would face off again in 2000, in the Democratic primary for secretary of state. But Pritt had been discredited by her general election defeat, and that time, Manchin landed some union endorsements. He won the primary, and then the general election, handily. His comeback had begun.

A changing state

Back when Manchin first entered West Virginia politics, he did so as a Democrat. That was no surprise — it was the party of his relatives who were in politics. But more broadly, the Democratic Party was by far the state’s dominant party. Though West Virginia’s roots were with the party of Lincoln (it was first established as a state during the Civil War when it broke away from secessionist Virginia), Franklin D. Roosevelt and his New Deal cemented the state’s Democratic loyalties for, it would turn out, the rest of the century.

Joe Manchin wants to save Democrats from themselves

Presidential candidate Franklin D. Roosevelt shakes hands with a mine worker during a campaign trip in Wheeling, West Virginia, in 1932.
Bettmann Collection/Getty Images

On the presidential level, the state was solidly Democratic except in the biggest national landslides (West Virginia was even one of just 10 states to vote for Michael Dukakis in 1988). Democrats usually won the governorship and other state offices. In the state legislature, both chambers remained in Democratic hands after 1933 for an astonishing 82 years. And both US senators from West Virginia were Democrats from 1959 until 2015.

Because Democrats were close to the only game in town, the Democratic Party was a big tent. There was a liberal strain of West Virginia Democratic politicians, a conservative strain, and many who were purely mercenary or careerist — but when the Democratic factions were united, they clearly had the numbers to win.

In 2000, the same year Manchin was elected secretary of state, it was obvious things were changing. Though Bill Clinton had won the state handily in the previous cycle, new Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore lost the state by 6 percentage points, with Gore’s environmentalism being generally pegged as the reason. (If Gore had won West Virginia, the contested outcome in Florida would have been irrelevant, and he would have become president.)

Gore’s defeat was not, it turned out, a fluke. The national Democratic Party became branded as anti-coal (meaning, in this state, anti-jobs), anti-gun, pro-abortion rights, and the party of socially liberal urbanites and minorities (West Virginia is one of the most rural states in the country and its population is over 90 percent white).

The state also had serious economic problems. “We lost more and more mining jobs, more and more factories, more and more of the blue-collar unions started decreasing and decreasing,” said Doug Skaff, minority leader of the House of Delegates. Every subsequent Democratic presidential candidate has lost West Virginia by double digits, with Hillary Clinton’s gruesome 42-point defeat in 2016 being the worst.

Joe Manchin wants to save Democrats from themselves

Striking coal miners walk a West Virginia picket line in August 1993.
Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis/Getty Images

The state Democratic Party stuck around long past 2000, and it came to be a party defined by Joe Manchin. Gov. Bob Wise’s popularity fell due to economic troubles and news of an extramarital affair he’d had with a state employee, and Manchin decided to primary him in 2003. Wise then decided not to run again after all, clearing the way for easy Manchin wins in both the 2004 primary and the general election. He had, improbably, become the “unity” candidate.

Plante, the strategist who had run Charlotte Pritt’s 1996 campaign, worked for Manchin this time around. Most unions, too, joined the team. “Labor, like any successful political group, is going to calculate, ‘Okay, somebody else may be with us 100 percent of the time, but they can’t get elected,’” said Plante. “West Virginia had begun its shift to the right, and they wanted to make sure they had a seat at the table.”

As for Manchin, he wasn’t sitting pretty. “This state is not going to revert back to people voting blindly for Democrats,” Manchin told the New York Times in November 2004, in the wake of Kerry’s defeat. “We’re going to have to earn their votes. And if we don’t, we’ll continue to get picked off one by one.”

“You’re kinda king when you’re governor”

Manchin’s strategy to defy the partisan trends in West Virginia mixed canny political branding and image management, legislative dealmaking, and old-fashioned retail politics.

“Joe Manchin is the most talented politician I’ve interacted with personally,” said Patrick Hickey, a former political science professor at West Virginia University. “I think he has the Bill Clinton skill, where he makes you feel like he’s listening.”

And over a nearly four-decade political career, a whole lot of people in this small state have interacted with Manchin personally. (“Everybody knows everybody,” several West Virginians I interviewed told me.) “I think there’s very few people around the state who haven’t seen or met Joe Manchin in some capacity,” Hickey added.

Joe Manchin wants to save Democrats from themselves

Joe Manchin files papers for his Democratic gubernatorial candidacy with his family in 1994 in Charleston, West Virginia.
Bob Bird/AP

As governor, Manchin was in his element. “He utilized that position to the fullest. He was involved in almost everything,” said Skaff. ”I don’t know when he slept. I’d see him walking up and down the boulevard in his full suit, slicked-back hair, tennis shoes on, on the cellphone. That’s how he got his exercise in. He’d walk two and a half miles down the boulevard from downtown Charleston to the statehouse with a state trooper in front of him.”

He was particularly engaged when working with the body he used to be a part of, the state legislature. “Manchin would arrive early to work and watch security cameras so that he knew when key legislators arrived. Then he would drop by their offices,” Christopher Regan, a former vice chair of the state Democratic Party, recently wrote in the Atlantic. Previous governors had put up a tent outside the governor’s mansion for special events every so often, but Manchin just left his tent up indefinitely, the better to host constant gatherings.

“You’re kinda king when you’re governor,” said Fleischauer. “He enjoyed that a whole lot.”

Manchin’s model of legislating was to bring every interest to the table and come up with something that they could all live with. It’s a style that usually entails accommodating, rather than confronting, powerful entities. His two biggest policy changes were finally passing his long-sought privatization of the state’s troubled workers’ compensation system, and phasing out the state’s regressive tax on food.

He was keenly interested in being seen as doing a whole lot, and frequently touted a binder full of his plans. “As governor, he had a bill for every problem that reached the top of public consciousness in West Virginia, no matter which way the issue leaned,” Regan wrote. He added: “In retrospect, few if any of these high-profile bills changed much in the state. But regardless of whether the end result was progress, Manchin was always in motion.” West Virginia’s woes may have been too big for any governor to solve, but the reality is that its economic stagnation has continued and its population has kept dropping.

Yet Manchin continued to be well-liked and was perceived as doing a good job. He could survive scandals that might sink a lesser politician, such as the news that his daughter Heather Bresch, an executive at Mylan, a generic drug company founded in the state, had been improperly granted a business degree from West Virginia University without completing the necessary credits. Administrators made a ham-handed effort to cover this up, and critics noted that WVU’s president was a Manchin family friend and former lobbyist for Mylan — everybody knew everybody. Manchin maintained that this was a mix-up and was the university’s fault.

The story had no impact on Manchin’s political fortunes — later in 2008, he won a second term by a 44-point landslide, despite Barack Obama’s solid defeat in the state at the top of the ticket. Bresch would later rise to become Mylan’s CEO and oversee enormously controversial price increases for EpiPens.

Manchin’s next step became clear in 2010, when the state’s longtime senior US senator, Robert C. Byrd, died at age 92. In his younger years Byrd had led a local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan and filibustered to try and block the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But he’d since become a veritable Senate institution, leading the chamber’s Democrats throughout the Carter and Reagan presidencies, and spending two decades as the top Democrat on the Appropriations Committee.

In Washington, Byrd took on the mantle of defender of the Senate’s rules and traditions, including the filibuster — the rule governing what can and can’t be passed through budget reconciliation is named after him. In West Virginia, though, Byrd was most known for the scads of federally funded projects he stamped his name on all over the state.

Manchin appointed a 36-year-old former aide to keep Byrd’s seat warm for him, as he prepared to run himself. “He ran for Senate very begrudgingly,” said Jefrey Pollock, a political strategist who has worked for Manchin for nearly two decades. “He didn’t want to be a senator; he loved being governor. But he knew when Byrd died that he was the only person who could realistically carry on the Democratic legacy of Byrd in the Senate.” (Others in the state believed Manchin had been eyeing the seat for some time.)

It was already clear that the 2010 midterms would be difficult for Democrats, with high unemployment and backlash to President Obama’s agenda. But Manchin insisted he wouldn’t be a typical Democrat — touting his National Rifle Association endorsement, vowing to repeal “the bad parts of Obamacare,” and airing an ad in which he shot the party’s climate change bill with a rifle. And, as Democrats around the country went down in flames in what Obama would dub a “shellacking,” Manchin won by 10 points.

Joe Manchin wants to save Democrats from themselves

Manchin celebrates his Senate victory during an election night party on November 2, 2010, in Charleston.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Yet some speculate that the Senate was a rung below another once-held ambition. When Manchin’s governorship began, after all, the most recent Democratic president had been a governor of a small Southern state, and the Democratic president before him had been the governor of a medium Southern state. Some West Virginians believed then that Manchin had the talent and the drive to follow in Jimmy Carter’s and Bill Clinton’s footsteps.

The 2008 rise of Barack Obama had shattered Democrats’ conventional wisdom about just who is “electable,” though, and the party’s continued shift to the left made it unthinkable that Manchin would ever be its presidential nominee — leaving the Senate as the apparent capstone of his career.

Who is Joe Manchin with when it counts?

Because he had won a special election, Manchin got to join the Senate in November 2010, for a lame-duck session in which the defeated Democrats still held the House and 58 Senate votes. And he quickly made clear he would be on the party’s right flank.

The White House wanted a vote on the DREAM Act, a bill to provide a path to legal status for millions of unauthorized immigrants who were brought to the US as minors. Since three Republicans supported the bill, it could have passed if 57 of the 58 Democrats joined them. But five Democrats voted no, and Manchin made clear he would have been a sixth (though he missed the vote). That meant only 55 senators were in favor of the bill, so the DREAM Act was filibustered to death.

Until this year, that was Manchin’s only brief brush with a Democratic-controlled Congress. For the next decade, Republicans either controlled the House, the Senate, or both, effectively making major progressive bills dead in the water.

In that time, Manchin racked up easily the most conservative voting record of any Senate Democrat. The catch, though, is that the size of the various Senate majorities in this period meant that his vote alone almost never made a difference. Any legislation had to pass with 60 Senate votes and the sign-on of the House (which Republicans controlled until 2019). Nominees also needed 60 votes until Democrats used the nuclear option in late 2013, and Republicans took over the Senate the following year.

By the time President Donald Trump was in office, then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had concluded that Manchin’s moderation was situational. That is, if Republicans ever really needed his vote, they were highly unlikely to get it. According to an account from former Trump White House aide Cliff Sims, McConnell told Trump in early 2017 that Manchin would “never be with us when it counts” — and vowed to “crush him like a grape” in the 2018 midterms.

A page on Manchin’s Senate website about legislation still blares the headline: “Senator Manchin Votes with President Trump,” and Manchin would indeed vote for over 100 Trump nominees in ensuing years. Yet these votes would be exclusively cast for nominees who had enough votes to pass without Manchin’s support. They weren’t decisive.

There was, however, one major Senate issue where Manchin could have personally changed the outcome — Republicans’ effort to repeal Obamacare, which surprisingly failed by a single vote in 2017, due to three Republican defections. Manchin voted no, with the rest of his party. As his rationale, he blamed Republicans’ lack of bipartisanship. And when running for reelection the following year, he aired an ad showing him shooting a new document with his rifle — a GOP lawsuit against Obamacare, backed by his opponent.

The other high-stakes battle where Manchin was closely watched involved the fate of Trump’s second Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, who in October 2018 was under fire due to allegations of sexual assault from his youth. Republicans had a slim 51-vote majority and they’d lost the vote of Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK). They could only afford to lose one more Republican — unless, of course, a Democrat broke ranks. As pressure from both sides built, and Manchin’s reelection the following month drew nearer, he stayed mum on his plans.

But Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) threw Manchin a lifeline when she announced in a floor speech that she’d support Kavanaugh, making clear his confirmation was assured. Just minutes later, Manchin blasted out a press release stating his position: He’d also vote yes. We may never know for sure if Manchin would have been the decisive vote to confirm Kavanaugh — but we know he was happy to jump on board once Kavanaugh already had the votes. Afterward, when asked by a reporter if there was still a place in the Democratic Party for him, Manchin responded: “I’m just a good ol’ West Virginian.”

Joe Manchin wants to save Democrats from themselves

Manchin before his vote to impeach President Donald Trump in Trump’s second trial, at the US Capitol on February 12, 2021.
Samuel Corum/Getty Images

There was indeed still a place in the party, and the Senate, for him. Though Democrats lost Senate seats in red states like North Dakota, Missouri, and Indiana in 2018, Manchin bucked the trend again, eking out a 3-point victory. After he won, he dropped off a jar of West Virginia “crushed grapes” at McConnell’s office.

Is there always a deal to be made?

Senate influence isn’t measured just in being the decisive vote. Indeed, Manchin’s own main goal is close to the opposite of that — he wants to create broad consensus around legislation. Skaff, the leader of the West Virginia House’s Democratic minority, told me he first met Manchin about 20 years ago, when Skaff was student body president at West Virginia University, and Manchin shared his advice about politics. “This is what stuck with me. He said, ‘There is always, always, a deal to be made. Compromise is the key,’” Skaff said.

But certain issues are so polarized between the parties that legislative action really does seem impossible. For instance, Manchin stuck out his neck out on gun control in the wake of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, crafting a compromise bill with Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA) to require background checks at gun shows and for internet gun sales. Even this limited measure was vociferously opposed by the NRA and fell well short of 60 Senate votes. Other issues, such as immigration and voting reform, appear similarly fraught.

When deals do get done, the cost of making everyone happy is often doing less — dropping or watering down some provisions, and accommodating interests rather than confronting them. To progressives who think the country needs major changes, that’s frustrating. Manchin doesn’t share that worldview. “I think there’s more people that believe like I believe,” he said. “That the moderate middle, a moderate governing function, is the way to go.”

Furthermore, the popular narrative of a gridlocked, do-nothing Congress has been complicated as of late, in the eyes of Princeton political scientist Frances Lee. “I would really like to put to rest this idea that the current Congress is gridlocked after 2020. That was an amazing year, a transformative year,” she said. Most prominently, there was the CARES Act, the vast pandemic relief measure that shelled out hundreds of billions in stimulus checks, unemployment benefits, and aid to businesses. But the last Congress did a good deal more with relatively little public attention, such as creating paid parental leave for federal employees, setting limits on surprise medical billing, and raising the minimum age for tobacco purchases to 21.

Manchin racked up his own bipartisan victories during this period. For years he’d been trying to rescue a pension fund for around 100,000 retired coal miners, but McConnell wouldn’t hold a vote on his bill. Then, in late 2019, McConnell jumped on board, saying new coal company bankruptcies had convinced him action was necessary, but perhaps motivated by his own looming reelection. There was a price: A provision to tax coal companies to fund benefits for black lung sufferers was dropped to get GOP support. The pension rescue made it into Congress’s year-end spending package and became law.

With then-Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO), Manchin crafted the Great American Outdoors Act, which allotted billions for deferred national park repair and federal conservation programs. After it passed, one expert called it “the biggest land conservation legislation in a generation.” (Republicans may have allowed it to pass in an attempt to save Gardner’s reelection and the GOP’s Senate majority, though he lost.)

Manchin also worked with Murkowski, then his Republican counterpart atop the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, on Congress’s first comprehensive energy bill in over a decade. Bipartisan compromise meant ditching some Democratic priorities, such as environmental justice provisions, and Manchin was naturally inclined to make sure states with fossil fuel jobs were treated well. They modified their bill to gain support, with 70 senators getting something they wanted. “We are the only committee still working and getting something done,” Manchin said in September. Yet the bill wasn’t brought to a vote, due to a fear that Trump would veto it because of his personal dislike for Murkowski.

After the November election, in Manchin’s recounting, he called Collins (whom he had endorsed and calls a friend) to congratulate her on her victory — and to say the moderates needed to get together to jump-start stalled talks on a new Covid-19 relief bill. A group of eight senators soon convened at Murkowski’s house to do that, and succeeded. Once a Covid-19 deal was headed toward passage, Manchin and Murkowski locked down sufficient support to get their energy deal thrown into Congress’s year-end package, and Trump signed the whole thing into law.

In explaining these successes, Manchin’s allies tout the power of compromise and personal relationships (when he’s in Washington, he frequently invites senators over to the houseboat where he lives, and he’s vowed never to campaign against a fellow incumbent). Still, the types of deals that are achievable tend to be those that help politically sympathetic people or are friendly to industries. They also came while Republicans were desperately trying to retain control of the Senate. Now in the minority, the GOP could well revert to a mode of obstruction, to try to deny Democrats and Biden successes, in hopes voters would punish the incumbent party at the midterms.

When I asked about that possibility, Manchin responded, “That is so wrong.” He acknowledges McConnell’s infamous 2010 comment that his top priority was making Obama a one-term president, but says, “I don’t think that can be repeated, or that people would stand for it, or even that the Republican caucus would adhere to that again.”

“I’m just the product of my environment”

The achievement of Manchin managing to keep his seat in the modern Senate is, if anything, underestimated. Polarization and the nationalization of politics has made ticket-splitting quite rare: Currently, only six of 100 senators represent seats the other party’s presidential nominee won in 2020. Five of them represent seats the other party won by 16 points or less. Manchin is in another league: Trump won his state by nearly 39 points. By any reckoning, Democrats are incredibly lucky to have this seat at all, and they’ll be highly unlikely to keep it once he leaves the scene.

Chart: Joe Manchin is an outlier even among senators on tough turf, seen in Trump’s or Joe Biden’s 2020 win margin in states with a senator from the opposing party.  

Tim Ryan Williams/Vox

While Manchin has been in the Senate defying the partisan tide, the remainder of the West Virginia Democratic Party has been swept away. Republicans’ 2014 midterm landslide ended Democrats’ eight-decade run controlling the state legislature. In 2016, Manchin encouraged wealthy businessman Jim Justice to run for governor as a Democrat. Justice won, but then dramatically switched parties the following year. Now every statewide office and the whole congressional delegation is in Republican hands, except for Manchin’s Senate seat. “I’m the last person standing,” he says.

Manchin’s future is unclear. His next reelection would be in 2024, when he’d be 77 years old. His victory in 2018 was narrow, and he likely benefited from the fact that it wasn’t a presidential year, considering the increased rarity of ticket-splitting. There is occasionally talk that he could run for governor again (that election would also be in 2024), but he recently sounded unlikely to do it. His legacy is likely on his mind.

That legacy will in large part be shaped by what happens in Congress under the Biden administration. For the first time in a decade, Democrats have unified control of government, which theoretically gives them a rare opportunity to pass new progressive laws on a party-line basis. But in practice, the 60-vote threshold to advance legislation past the filibuster dramatically limits what they can do with their party alone (except, again, for budget reconciliation, a process that comes with restrictions and that Manchin has voiced skepticism about using again).

To the immense frustration of progressive activists, Manchin has insisted that this filibuster must stay. He is not the only Senate Democrat with this view — Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) is with him prominently, as are others more quietly. But in March, Manchin perhaps inadvertently gave reformers hope with a series of ambiguous and misinterpreted comments about a rules tweak he could support (requiring filibustering senators to talk on the Senate floor). So he tried to quash those hopes with his Washington Post op-ed in early April.

Some filibuster reformers hope that, as the year goes on, the reality of Republican obstruction will become clear to Manchin and he’ll be driven to change his mind — that Senate rules will in the end be just as negotiable to him as the details of Biden’s stimulus bill. For instance, reformers hoped a GOP filibuster of Democrats’ big voting rights bill, the For the People Act, could spur holdout senators to change the rules to pass it, because it’s so important.

Manchin recoils at the very idea. “How in the world could you, with the tension we have right now, allow a voting bill to restructure the voting of America on a partisan line?” he asked. He says that 20 to 25 percent of the public already doesn’t trust the system and that a party-line overhaul would “guarantee” that number would increase, leading to more “anarchy” like that at the Capitol on January 6. He added: “I just believe with all my heart and soul that’s what would happen, and I’m not going to be part of it.”

Joe Manchin wants to save Democrats from themselves

Manchin speaks with reporters outside the Senate on April 13. He says he has made it clear he will continue to oppose filibuster reform.
Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

The senator is already on record opposing a $15-an-hour minimum wage, which he says “just doesn’t work economically” for rural areas. But more than that, he thinks the lack of action on a minimum wage increase is largely the fault of left-wing Democratic senators who are “philosophically or ideologically stuck on 15.” He says he has Republican support to increase the wage from $7.25 to $11, and that he “can’t figure out” why Democrats “won’t take a victory.”

More broadly, Manchin acknowledges that he has a great deal of power in the 50-50 Senate — and he knows there’s a very good chance he won’t retain that power after the 2022 midterms. So he wants to use the opportunity of this “moment in time,” as he calls it, to push the Senate toward bipartisanship rather than away from it.

He tends to wax loquacious on the “brilliance” of the country’s founders in creating the Senate to cool the passions of the House. The problem here is that the founders didn’t actually have anything to do with the filibuster, which was created by accident, and which only became so commonly used in recent decades. Regardless, Manchin now says the filibuster is essential to what he views as the Senate’s moderating function, and insists he will not be “that one vote that would basically destroy it.”

The bigger picture is that Manchin fundamentally disagrees with progressives that the major problem facing the country is Republican extremism. He thinks Democrats are part of the problem, too. He wants his party to really try to work with Republicans, and believes that won’t happen unless they are forced to do so because of the filibuster. And, he told me, he thinks his strategy of taking filibuster reform off the table is already working — to change his own party’s behavior. “Because they know I’m adamant about that,” he said, “there have been more talks of compromise now.”

Biden knows how important Manchin is to his agenda, and his approach to the senator has focused on carrots, not sticks. It’s worked well so far — Manchin has backed nearly all of Biden’s nominees to date, though he scuttled Neera Tanden’s Office of Management and Budget confirmation, saying it was because of her “overly partisan” tweets. He also voted for progressive Rep. Deb Haaland to head the Interior Department despite some skepticism, but got Biden to drop his initial pick for deputy secretary of the department in favor of a more fossil fuel-friendly choice.

Manchin has said he’s spoken to Biden five to seven times this year, telling the Hill that “we have a great relationship.” It’s not just phone calls — in late March, Biden announced he would nominate Manchin’s wife, Gayle Conelly Manchin, to serve as federal co-chair of the Appalachian Regional Commission. Carrots, not sticks.

Yet with Manchin seeming so unlikely to back rules reform, some progressives, at least in the online realm, have mused that Democratic leaders should consider a tougher response — say, taking away his committee chair. Such tactics are reminiscent of the George W. Bush administration’s approach to disciplining moderate Republicans in the last 50-50 Senate, controlled by the GOP in 2001. The ultimate result was that Sen. James Jeffords (R-VT), believing the administration had acted high-handedly and arrogantly toward him, announced he’d switch parties, and control of the Senate, to the Democrats that May.

There are reasons to doubt Manchin would do the same, such as his four decades of history in the Democratic Party, his often-frosty relationship with McConnell, and his votes to remove Trump from office (which make a continued electoral career in the GOP unlikely). Of course, that assumes Manchin continues to feel well-treated by Democratic leaders. If they went to war against him, well, remember Charlotte Pritt. Manchin may be a conciliator, but he’s no pushover.

When I asked him about a party switch, though, Manchin said, “I’ve never considered it from that standpoint because I know I can change more from where I’m at. And I still believe in the principles of the Democratic Party that I grew up with.”

Those principles, he said, are that while “everyone should have a helping hand” with “the basic necessities of life,” everyone should also “contribute.” He cited his grandmother, Mama Kay, who would open her home to the homeless and the hungry, but who also set rules: “you couldn’t cuss, you couldn’t drink, and you had to work.”

“You want to continue to send checks and give everything away continuously, that’s not who I am,” he continued. “Not the way I was raised.”

“I’m just the product of my environment. I’m sorry if you don’t like it. It’s who I am.”

Joe Manchin wants to save Democrats from themselves

Biden’s next major economic package will likely hinge on votes from moderates like Manchin, with Republicans opposed to tax hikes.
Samuel Corum/Bloomberg/Getty Images


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