NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Monday, June 7th, 2021

Understanding Joe Manchin, the Democratic senator imperiling U.S. democracy’s future

Joe Manchin sure is the wrong per­son to be reliant upon in a crisis.

The lone remain­ing Demo­c­ra­t­ic mem­ber of Con­gress from West Vir­ginia declared in a guest essay yes­ter­day that he is firm­ly and res­olute­ly opposed to H.R. 1, the For the Peo­ple Act, and will nei­ther vote for it nor help end the fil­i­buster to allow the Unit­ed States Sen­ate to be run demo­c­ra­t­i­cal­ly pri­or to the midterms.

“I believe that par­ti­san vot­ing leg­is­la­tion will destroy the already weak­en­ing binds of our democ­ra­cy, and for that rea­son, I will vote against the For the Peo­ple Act,” Manchin wrote in a guest essay for the Charleston Gazette-Mail.

“Fur­ther­more, I will not vote to weak­en or elim­i­nate the fil­i­buster. For as long as I have the priv­i­lege of being your U.S. sen­a­tor, I will fight to rep­re­sent the peo­ple of West Vir­ginia, to seek bipar­ti­san com­pro­mise no mat­ter how dif­fi­cult and to devel­op the polit­i­cal bonds that end divi­sions and help unite the coun­try we love.”

“Amer­i­can democ­ra­cy is some­thing spe­cial, it is big­ger than one par­ty, or the tweet-filled par­ti­san attack pol­i­tics of the moment. It is my sin­cere hope that all of us, espe­cial­ly those who are priv­i­leged to serve, remem­ber our respon­si­bil­i­ty to do more to unite this coun­try before it is too late,” Manchin concluded.

Manch­in’s unground­ed, unre­al­is­tic com­men­tary quick­ly prompt­ed a lot of angry respons­es from Demo­c­ra­t­ic and pro­gres­sive activists and commentators.

Many of them were served up, fit­ting­ly enough, on Twitter.

“I’ve bris­tled at the notion that if you don’t sup­port blow­ing up the fil­i­buster, you’re not a Demo­c­rat. Or you don’t sup­port all gov­ern­ment spend­ing, you’re not a D,” tweet­ed Joe Lock­hart. “But Joe Manchin, when you don’t sup­port the right to vote for every Amer­i­can, you are not a Demo­c­rat. Not even close.”

“If vot­ing rights leg­is­la­tion had to be ‘bipar­ti­san’, [the] 15th Amend­ment would’ve nev­er passed. It’s aston­ish­ing that Joe Manchin calls right to vote ‘fun­da­men­tal’ but won’t back For the Peo­ple Act that would stop great­est roll back of vot­ing access since end of Recon­struc­tion,” tweet­ed Ari Berman.

“Joe Manchin is so twist­ed,” declared the Rev­erend Dr. William Bar­ber II, one of the great­est preach­ers in the coun­try. “We need both the For The Peo­ple Act and the John Lewis Vot­ing Rights Advance­ment Act. He knows the VRA is going to be chal­lenged and is a tar­get for the Repub­li­cans. And if he want­ed to pass the VRA, why for eight years has he not done any­thing to pass it?”

“Mitch McConnell and Joe Manchin are work­ing in a bipar­ti­san way to dis­man­tle our nation’s pur­suit of democ­ra­cy,” added Charles Book­er.

Even Fox’s Chris Wal­lace was crit­i­cal of Manchin, ask­ing if he was naive.

You might be sur­prised to learn that Manchin sig­naled open­ness ten years ago to fil­i­buster reform, but that was before he got on this big bipar­ti­san­ship tear.

Ah, bipar­ti­san­ship. I’m not sure there is any­one in Unit­ed States pol­i­tics who is more in love with that adjec­tive right now than Joe Manchin.

It takes two to tan­go, though, and con­gres­sion­al Repub­li­cans who are “priv­i­leged to serve” have no inter­est in unit­ing the coun­try or col­lab­o­rat­ing with Democ­rats to make vot­ing reforms “bipar­ti­san”. I can count on my fin­gers the num­ber of Repub­li­cans who will some­times buck their par­ty, but only for some­thing minor.

Susan Collins might vote for a Biden nom­i­nee she likes once in a while. Mitt Rom­ney and Lisa Murkows­ki will occa­sion­al­ly back a piece of leg­is­la­tion, like the bill to estab­lish a bipar­ti­san com­mis­sion to inves­ti­gate the Jan­u­ary 6th attacks. Even more Repub­li­cans can be found when the objec­tive is com­mit­ting mon­ey to counter Chi­na’s influ­ence, which the End­less Fron­tier Act seeks to do.

But on any­thing major, the Repub­li­cans will be nays. All of them.

That’s espe­cial­ly true with respect to vot­ing rights. Repub­li­cans aren’t going to sup­port any leg­is­la­tion that would impede them from get­ting back into power.

That includes the the John Lewis Vot­ing Rights Advance­ment Act, which Manchin brought up as some­thing he does sup­port in his guest essay for the Gazette Mail.

“My Repub­li­can col­league, Lisa Murkows­ki, has joined me in urg­ing Sen­ate lead­er­ship to update and pass this bill through reg­u­lar order,” Manchin wrote.

“I con­tin­ue to engage with my Repub­li­can and Demo­c­ra­t­ic col­leagues about the val­ue of the John Lewis Vot­ing Rights Advance­ment Act and I am encour­aged by the desire from both sides to tran­scend par­ti­san pol­i­tics and strength­en our democ­ra­cy by pro­tect­ing vot­ing rights.”

Um, what? What desire from both sides is Manchin talk­ing about?

Lisa Murkows­ki is one Repub­li­can. She is unrep­re­sen­ta­tive of her par­ty and of Mitch McConnel­l’s cau­cus. In the absence of the fil­i­buster, one Repub­li­can would be enough to pass a bill with­out the need for a tie-break­er. And one Repub­li­can vote does get you the thin veneer of “bipar­ti­san­ship”.

But since Manchin is opposed to get­ting rid of the fil­i­buster, it would take ten Repub­li­cans to get the bill prop­er­ly before the Sen­ate for con­sid­er­a­tion and a vote on final pas­sage. Those addi­tion­al Repub­li­can votes do not exist.

Fur­ther­more, the John Lewis Vot­ing Rights Advance­ment Act, while impor­tant and a very good idea, bare­ly scratch­es the sur­face of what is ulti­mate­ly need­ed to pro­tect vot­ing rights and access to the bal­lot in this coun­try, as the Rev­erend Dr. Bar­ber said in the tweet I repro­duced above. That’s why the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives put togeth­er H.R. 1 and sent it over to the Senate.

And even H.R. 1 isn’t enough. But it’s sub­stan­tial, and would prob­a­bly get us clos­er to a more uni­form elec­tion sys­tem that pro­tects the right to vote.

How­ev­er, as we know, Repub­li­cans don’t have any inter­est in that.

Wher­ev­er they cur­rent­ly have pow­er, Repub­li­cans are pass­ing bills intend­ed to stop peo­ple from vot­ing in this coun­try. I wrote about these bills last Sun­day, pro­vid­ing the com­plete text of four of them right here on the Cas­ca­dia Advo­cate.

We can see that not only are Repub­li­cans not inter­est­ed in pass­ing bills like the John Lewis Vot­ing Rights Advance­ment Act, they are laser focused on going in the oth­er direc­tion. Telling­ly, Manchin did­n’t acknowl­edge what Repub­li­cans in Texas, Geor­gia, Iowa, and Flori­da have been up to recent­ly in his guest essay.

Manchin does, how­ev­er, rec­og­nize that Mitch McConnell is obsessed with get­ting his pow­er back. When McConnell orches­trat­ed a fil­i­buster of the bipar­ti­san com­mis­sion to inves­ti­gate the Jan­u­ary 6th attacks, Manchin lament­ed:

“There is no excuse for any Repub­li­can to vote against this com­mis­sion since Democ­rats have agreed to every­thing they asked for. Mitch McConnell has made this his polit­i­cal posi­tion, think­ing it will help his 2022 elec­tions. They do not believe the truth will set you free, so they con­tin­ue to live in fear.”

Curi­ous­ly, despite that expe­ri­ence, here is Joe Manchin only a few days lat­er vain­ly preach­ing bipar­ti­san­ship again. If he real­ly believes that the truth will set peo­ple free (and by the way, it won’t and does­n’t… that’s an Enlight­en­ment myth), then why does­n’t he acknowl­edge the truth? Twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry style bipar­ti­san­ship is dead, no mat­ter how fer­vent­ly Manchin wish­es it weren’t.

Repub­li­cans are not inter­est­ed in help­ing to coop­er­a­tive­ly gov­ern the coun­try, and they have proven this over and over again for more than decade.

But Manchin would rather chase after uni­corns then deal in real­i­ty.

To put it anoth­er way: The process seems more impor­tant to him than the out­come. Leg­is­la­tion on some­thing like vot­ing rights is only worth doing in his book if it’s bipar­ti­san. Bring back those wun­ner­ful olde tyme pol­i­tics!

To that, Repub­li­cans say: Great! That means we win, and noth­ing will get done.

About a month ago, Iowa’s Chuck Grass­ley told con­stituents that he was con­fi­dent Manchin would hold out as a voice and a vote against H.R. 1.

“We think we’ve got him nailed down,” Grass­ley was quot­ed as say­ing.

Yes­ter­day, Manchin proved those words to be true.

Manchin clear­ly does­n’t like what is hap­pen­ing to the coun­try, but bewil­der­ing­ly, it appears he only wants to take cor­rec­tive action if the very peo­ple who are busy enabling the destruc­tion of Amer­i­ca’s polit­i­cal norms are on board.

That’s a sil­ly, mad­den­ing posi­tion to hold. But, if you’re try­ing to make sense of it, it helps to know where Manchin comes from, and who he is.

Manchin rep­re­sents West Vir­ginia, a small state that has become zeal­ous­ly, fever­ish­ly Repub­li­can. He has sur­vived sev­er­al elec­toral purges of Democ­rats from high office, rid­ing on the strength of his per­son­al rep­u­ta­tion and name famil­iar­i­ty. He’s a rather unique polit­i­cal fig­ure, both with­in and beyond his state.

He does­n’t owe his Sen­ate seat to the DSCC, the DNC, or nation­al pro­gres­sive orga­ni­za­tions, as FiveThri­tyEight’s Per­ry Bacon has observed.

In 2018, his last cam­paign, Manchin won reelec­tion with less than fifty per­cent of the vote. He got 290,510 votes, while Repub­li­can Patrick Mor­risey got 271,113 votes and Lib­er­tar­i­an Rusty Hollen got 24,411 votes. If Hol­len’s vot­ers had backed Mor­risey, Manchin would have been defeat­ed… in a Demo­c­ra­t­ic year.

Because he won reelec­tion to a new six year term three years ago, Manchin did not face vot­ers in 2020, when Trump’s name was on the bal­lot, and was not at risk of being vot­ed out of office at that time by Trump’s base.

But in 2024, Manch­in’s luck could eas­i­ly run out. He will be up. If he runs again, he could con­ceiv­ably end up on the bal­lot with Trump, since Trump has not been barred from run­ning again for the office of Pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed States.

Even if the Repub­li­cans nom­i­nate some­one else, Manchin is going to find it hard to pull anoth­er rab­bit out of a hat. While I don’t and can’t know the future, I fig­ure Joe Manch­in’s odds of get­ting reelect­ed in 2024 are pret­ty steep.

Don­ald Trump got 68.62% of the vote across West Vir­ginia last year. Not a sin­gle coun­ty in the state backed the Biden-Har­ris tick­et. Not even one.

The Wikipedia arti­cle on the 2020 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion in West Vir­ginia says of the state’s south­ern region: “This coal-min­ing, union-heavy region was once among the most heav­i­ly Demo­c­ra­t­ic places in the nation; Logan Coun­ty, for exam­ple, broke 72% of its bal­lots for Bill Clin­ton in 1996, 61% for Al Gore in 2000, and even 52% for John Ker­ry in 2004; but by 2008, John McCain flipped it to the Repub­li­can col­umn with 54% of the vote, which increased to 68% for Mitt Rom­ney in 2012 and by 2016 and 2020, it had vot­ed 80.9% for Trump.”

All this has hap­pened dur­ing Joe Manch­in’s polit­i­cal career.

In 1982, he was elect­ed to the West Vir­ginia House of Del­e­gates. In 1986, he moved over to the West Vir­ginia State Sen­ate. In 2000, he won his first statewide race and became Sec­re­tary of State. In 2004, he was elect­ed Gov­er­nor, and held that office until 2010, when he resigned to run for the Unit­ed States Senate.

West Vir­gini­a’s trans­for­ma­tion into a devout right wing bas­tion has accel­er­at­ed, rapid­ly, since Manchin left the state­house for the U.S. Capitol.

When Manchin left Charleston for Capi­tol Hill, he did so with state gov­ern­ment large­ly in Demo­c­ra­t­ic hands. Manch­in’s suc­ces­sor, Earl Ray Tomblin, was a Demo­c­rat. The Sec­re­tary of State was a Demo­c­rat (Natal­ie Ten­nant), the long­time Attor­ney Gen­er­al was a Demo­c­rat (Dar­rell McGraw), the Com­mis­sion­er of Agri­cul­ture was a Demo­c­rat (Gus R. Dou­glass), the Trea­sur­er was a Demo­c­rat (John Per­due), and the Audi­tor was a Demo­c­rat (Glen Gainer).

Today, all those posi­tions — all of them — are held by Republicans.

The same shift has tak­en place in the state’s con­gres­sion­al delegation.

In 2014, when Manch­in’s seat­mate Jay Rock­e­feller decid­ed to retire, Democ­rats failed to hold his U.S. Sen­ate seat. It went instead to Repub­li­can Shel­ley Moore Capi­to. 2014 was also the year that West Vir­gini­ans dumped long­time Demo­c­ra­t­ic U.S. Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Nick Rahall, send­ing hin into retire­ment after sev­er­al decades of ser­vice in the House. (Rahall was first elect­ed in 1976.)

With Rahal­l’s loss, the entire three mem­ber U.S. House del­e­ga­tion from West Vir­ginia became Repub­li­can. It has remained so since.

Manchin is — real­ly and tru­ly — the last promi­nent Demo­c­rat left stand­ing in a state that used to be Demo­c­ra­t­ic to its core. And he knows it.

Manchin also knows that Democ­rats need his vote to pass any­thing in the Unit­ed States Sen­ate. As a mem­ber of a fifty per­son cau­cus, his word alone is enough to sink a bill, at least in the eyes of Belt­way polit­i­cal writ­ers who churn out who’s win­ning, who’s los­ing right now analy­sis on a dai­ly or week­ly basis.

Manchin is milk­ing this dynam­ic for all that it’s worth on a reg­u­lar basis, keep­ing him­self the cen­ter of atten­tion. In the showhorse vs. work­horse metaphor, Manchin is far and away the showhorse by a coun­try mile.

The guest essay he wrote for the Charleston Gazette-Mail did­n’t just gen­er­ate press for him; it gen­er­at­ed nation­al above the fold headlines.

That was by design.

Democ­rats should­n’t be hostage to Manch­in’s whims. They should­n’t need Manch­in’s vote to pass any­thing in the Sen­ate. He ought to sim­ply be the most con­ser­v­a­tive mem­ber of the cau­cus, rather than the linch­pin of the majority.

But unlike in 2013, when Har­ry Reid embraced fil­i­buster reform for nom­i­nees and mar­shaled the votes to get it done, Democ­rats don’t have a fifty-five mem­ber cau­cus. Instead, they have the barest of majori­ties, with Vice Pres­i­dent Kamala Har­ris avail­able to break ties as need­ed. Chuck Schumer can’t spare Manch­in’s vote. Democ­rats need him on board to do any­thing for the time being.

The par­ty failed to beat vul­ner­a­ble Repub­li­can incum­bents like Susan Collins and Thom Thillis last year despite mak­ing a huge effort to knock Mitch McConnell out of pow­er. The cur­rent major­i­ty was only belat­ed­ly secured thanks to the incred­i­ble vic­to­ries of Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff in Geor­gia on Jan­u­ary 5th.

Were it not for those Geor­gia vic­to­ries, Mitch McConnell would still be in con­trol of the Sen­ate and Joe Manch­in’s dreams of bipar­ti­san­ship would not be a hot top­ic right now. The road back to the major­i­ty has cer­tain­ly been a roller coast­er for Democ­rats. There has been both the agony of defeat and the ecsta­sy of victory.

In a way, Manch­in’s guest essay yes­ter­day is help­ful. It sends a clear mes­sage: I want to remind you that I’m unre­li­able, and I sim­ply can­not be count­ed upon to do what’s best for the coun­try, even in a very dark hour when I could be of tremen­dous help to mil­lions of Amer­i­cans by offer­ing coura­geous lead­er­ship.

Sen­ate Major­i­ty Leader Chuck Schumer ought to force Manchin to take a vote against the For The Peo­ple Act by bring­ing it up soon for the Sen­ate’s con­sid­er­a­tion. If Democ­rats can’t get the bill through the Sen­ate, they can at least make an issue out of it. As for pro­gres­sive orga­ni­za­tions seek­ing to hold Manchin account­able, the best course of action is to cre­ative­ly ensure that he and his staff have to hear from Amer­i­cans upset with his bad choic­es on a reg­u­lar basis.

Spend­ing mon­ey on ad cam­paigns in West Vir­ginia or cam­paign­ing against Manchin is not a good use of resources. As Manchin him­self observed a few weeks ago: “What are they going to do — they going to go into West Vir­ginia and cam­paign against me? Please, that would help me more than anything.”

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