Opinion

In defense of Joe Manchin

The senator's centrism is aggravating, but it's also quite rational

Joe Manchin.

I can't quite bring myself to see Joe Manchin as a villain.

Yes, it would be great if the Democratic senator from West Virginia was more progressive. It's aggravating that he slow-walked the COVID-19 relief bill last week in order to find some accommodation with Republicans. (Predictably, cooperation was not forthcoming, but his efforts ended up lowering the weekly unemployment benefit by $100 a week.) It's frustrating that he favors an $11 minimum wage instead of the $15 that most Democrats are seeking. It's really discouraging that he has repeatedly pronounced himself dead set against ending the filibuster that stands in the way of so many of his party's legislative goals.

Even more frustrating than these stances are Manchin's explanations. He seems to really believe that Democrats should try to work with the GOP to advance legislation, despite more than a decade's worth of evidence that Republicans aren't much interested in helping govern when they're in the minority.

"I look for that moderate middle," Manchin said Sunday on ABC's This Week. "The commonsense that comes with the moderate middle is who I am."

Who still believes this stuff? You can understand why lefty activists are already planning a primary challenge to him and his fellow centrist Democrat, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), or why left-of-center pundits seem to hold him in such contempt. They don't see him as the 50th vote in a 50-50 Senate for Democratic priorities, but as the possible 51st vote against.

That is probably the wrong way to think about Manchin. How should we understand him, then? We can start by recognizing that his stances — if not sympathetic to progressives — are, politically speaking, quite rational.

West Virginia voters are fairly conservative, after all. On a state map of the 2020 presidential election, there are no blue counties to be found — just a couple of pink counties, along with far more reds and dark reds. Republicans outnumber Democrats by less than a percentage point, but that's probably just a leftover artifact of the days when the state really was solidly Democratic. The reality is that Donald Trump won two-thirds of the state's votes just a few months ago, and that Manchin is West Virginia's lone Democrat in Congress. In all likelihood, there is only so far left he can go and still hold onto his seat, assuming he wants to keep it.

It's not great that the fate of the national Democratic agenda depends on the political interests of a senator who represents one of the most conservative states in the union, but that's where we are.

Democratic voters may not be as progressive as all that, either. About a year ago this time, I was writing why Joe Biden's campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination was about to crash and burn. Oops. Perhaps I was guilty of motivated reasoning — I was rooting for Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who is well to Biden's left on just about everything. And Biden wasn't just a centrist ideologically, but temperamentally: Like Manchin, he really seemed to believe in the seemingly outdated notion of reaching across the aisle to work with Republicans. He was the choice of Democratic voters. You can argue that those voters were playing it safe, but it might also mean they are more pragmatic than lefty activists about what is actually possible.

What's more, polls have repeatedly shown that Democratic voters — much more than Republican voters — value leaders who compromise and treat the other party with respect. (Rank-and-file Democrats tend to be more moderate than vocal Twitter activists, as well, which is why those findings might seem counterintuitive.) Manchin might be closer to the beating heart of his party than critics like to admit.

And remember, Democrats are just a heartbeat away from being back in the minority. Manchin just came out of six years of being in the minority party in the Senate — and the Democrats' current "majority" in the chamber, such as it is, rests on Vice President Kamala Harris being around to cast a 51st vote when needed, but also keeping all 50 Democrats happy and healthy for the next two years. Just consider how Democrats held their breath when Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) got sick at the start of Trump's impeachment trial. The party's control of the Senate could disappear at any moment.

If that's argument for striking boldly while the iron is hot, as many liberal activists believe, it is also reason for caution: Democrats may be eager to advance their agenda without restraint now, but they won't like it quite as much when and if Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) — or, possibly, his more Trumpist replacement — can eventually pursue GOP priorities without restraint. Certainly, it won't be much fun for Democratic senators to be powerless witnesses.

All of this means that it's in Manchin's political interest to be seen by his voters as working in bipartisan fashion, and in his legislative interest to preserve some minority leverage over the long haul. And it's in Democrats' interests — for now, at least — to figure out how to get Manchin to "yes" on their priorities instead of pounding their chests in a rage at every potential "no." They should also consider that Manchin might be more flexible in some areas than they think: On Sunday he said that while he won't vote to end the filibuster, he might be amenable to some tweaks that would neutralize it a bit.

Activists are rarely happy with incremental improvements, and understandably so. "Half a loaf" thinking is not nearly as satisfying as big, bold victories. But consider the COVID relief bill that just passed the Senate: Whatever the compromises that were made in getting it passed, there is no chance equivalent legislation would have passed under a GOP majority. A $1.9 trillion half a loaf is still a hell of loaf. Manchin is the 50th vote that made that possible.

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