When we won the two Senate seats in Georgia and made the Senate 50-50, it was inevitable that Senator Joe Manchin from West Virginia was going to start getting a lot of press. Which he has.
To put it mildly, Manchin is a rare bird when it comes to politics today. And I want to see the Democrats pass a lot of important legislation, and getting Manchin on board will be crucial to that goal, so I set out to understand him a bit better.
It’s About West Virginia
To say that Joe Manchin is a West Virginian politician is an understatement. Unlike those Senators who have an eye on the presidency, Manchin is about West Virginia, and West Virginia only. He was born there, raised there, got his college degree there, and has spent a lifetime in politics there, starting as a state representative and rising through the ranks up to the governorship, prior to becoming the Senator in 2010 in a special election. He is not interested in what the rest of the country thinks of him, he is only preoccupied with his own state and its voters.
Which makes it really interesting to me that he is still a Democrat. Back in 2005, West Virginia was a solid blue state. Honestly! Democrats held almost every state-level office and had the majority in both the state Senate and state House (in the House, their majority was 72-28!) But ever since then, West Virginia has gotten redder and redder.
In 2016, Trump won the state by 42 points. In 2020, Trump won it by 39 points. Biden only got 29% of the vote. Not a single county went blue. During Trump’s presidency, Governor Jim Justice who won the governorship as a Democrat, changed his registration to Republican. Despite the red washing over the state, Manchin ran for re-election 2018 and got 49% of the vote, beating the Republican candidate by 3 points.
How Manchin Operates
The Republicans have been trying to woo Manchin to switch parties ever since he arrived in the Senate in 2010. He has never left his party and instead has worked in as bipartisan manner as possible. In his first year, he met with all 99 Senators individually to get to know them better.
He is in the middle of the road, through and through. There are votes he’s taken that are conservative, and he’s come through on critical Democratic issues throughout his career. You can see a pretty good run-through of his positions HERE.
According to this recent Atlantic article, Manchin is not driven by ideology but instead a “keen sense of what issues and bills are popular at any given moment and of how he can be seen as being on the right side of those issues for the electorate—no matter which party is in favor of them.”
From the same article: “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. On the right, he privatized an insolvent workers-compensation insurance system, and cut business taxes. On the left, he abolished the sales tax on food, and believe it or not, he used his strong Democratic majority to pass a cap-and-trade law designed to reduce coal-fired power plants’ emissions.”
I’m not a Manchin apologist — I’m far more liberal than he is. (Well, I’m guessing everyone who calls themselves a Democrat probably is.) He has taken stances and votes that I’ve found to be very disappointing. But I also know he’s been a solid Democratic vote at key times, like most recently with Trump’s two impeachment votes. Considering how strong West Virginia went for Trump, I find it remarkable that Manchin didn’t waver at all with those votes.
Manchin Under Biden
The American Rescue Plan was passed with just 50 votes because the Democrats used the budgeting process called reconciliation to pass it. At this point, though, nearly all other legislation has a 60 vote threshold because of the filibuster. (Need a primer on how the filibuster currently works? Read THIS.)
Regular readers of Political Charge know how much I want to pass HR1, the For the People Act, and HR4, the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which will do so much good to expand voting rights, tamp down voter suppression, root out corruption, and decrease the influence dark money has on our elections. But since no one believes HR1 (called S1 in the Senate) can get 10 Republican votes, there have been consistent cries to abolish the filibuster. Manchin has said over and over again that he is against getting rid of the filibuster because he believes it forces the parties to find common ground.
However, he has made several statements since Biden won the election that make it seem like there is a path to reform the filibuster in order to get legislation passed.
He said, “We are going to make Joe Biden successful.” (source)
From Vox: Manchin “told Meet the Press host Chuck Todd that ‘if you want to make [filibustering] a little bit more painful — make them stand there and talk — I’m willing to look at any way we can.’ He also reiterated that same point elsewhere on Sunday, telling Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday that ‘[the filibuster] should be painful if you want to use it.'”
What many reporters are reading into these comments (as are the other Democratic Senators) is that while Manchin is against abolishing the filibuster, he is open to reforming it. He believes the minority should have a way to participate in what happens in the Senate, but he also thinks obstructing getting work done in the Senate shouldn’t be easy. Furthermore, he said that Senators who are obstructing a bill should be forced to explain why on the Senate floor. (source)
The trend regarding the filibuster is to make exceptions to it, and so why not push for an exception to the filibuster when it comes to legislation dealing with voting rights? This is one of several ideas that are being floated right now in an attempt to get Manchin, and other Democrats who don’t want to entirely do away with the filibuster, to play ball.
When it comes right down to it, Manchin was frustrated with the Senate under Trump and McConnell because so little got done. He now has a chance to deliver for West Virginia.
A Word About Primarying Manchin
Every time Manchin says something that is in conflict with what more progressive Democrats want, I see the standard social media cries that Manchin should be “primaried.” So, about that. The answer to getting more progressive bills passed is not getting rid of a Democratic Senator. The answer is getting a larger Democratic majority so that Manchin isn’t the key 50th vote.
Considering how much redder West Virginia is trending, and the electoral history of Democrats in the state, it feels to me like Manchin might be the last Democrat in the state who knows how to get elected there.
Next time he takes a vote you don’t like, remember that unless you are a West Virginian, he does not care what you think. Leave it to voters in the state to tell him what they think. You and me? We’re going to focus on flipping some 2022 Senate seats instead.