"Do you think by having a D or an I or an R is going to change who I am? I don't think the Rs would be any more happier with me than Ds are right now," he said at the Economic Club of Washington, D.C., on Tuesday. "That's about as blunt as I can put it. So I don't know where in the hell I belong."
But the Senate's most conservative Democrat is exactly where he belongs. He'll never have more influence than he has at this moment. No legislation can pass without his vote.
For proof, watch the incredible shrinking reconciliation bill. Progressives wanted to spend somewhere in the neighborhood of $6 trillion. They settled for $3.5 trillion, and that top-line number is slowly but surely moving toward the $1.5 trillion Manchin says he wants. And why not? It's Manchin's world, and the rest of the Democratic Party is just living in it.
Becoming an independent and caucusing with the Democrats — which wouldn't flip control of the chamber — is too clever by half. It would do nothing to increase Manchin's leverage, which comes from being a Democrat who dissents on a whole range of issues and one whom party leaders know would be replaced by a Republican who will vote with them on nothing if Manchin were to give up his seat. Democrats can at least fantasize about someone more liberal than Manchin's partner in intraparty roadblocking, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, in Arizona. West Virginia went for former President Donald Trump by 40 points.
Recent history also suggests switching parties ends badly. Former Sen. Jim Jeffords (Vt.) quietly seethed as the Republican Party moved rightward for decades, bolted to give Democrats control, and was essentially never heard from again. Months later, the GOP regained the majority without him. Pennsylvania's former Sen. Arlen Specter was an even sadder case. Enticed by Democratic leaders, including then-Sen. Joe Biden, to deliver them a filibuster-proof majority, he switched parties. He had no major influence on legislation; Democrats promptly lost their filibuster-proof majority in a special election; and the party didn't even keep its commitment to clear the primary field for Specter. He was defeated for the Democratic nomination the following year.
Manchin undoubtedly knows this history, and that he can avoid that fate by staying put — and staying the real decider of the Democratic agenda.