Joe Manchin could be the most powerful man in the Senate. The senior senator from West Virginia is the last Democrat hanging onto federal office in a state that twice voted for Donald Trump by 40 points, but he doesn’t always toe the party line.
Of the ‘defund the police’ movement that gained traction on the Left over the summer, Manchin says, ‘Defund my butt.’ If you were unsure about federal funding of his posterior, he went on to elaborate: ‘We do not have some crazy socialist agenda, and we do not believe in defunding the police.’
Manchin described a Democratic proposal to continue trying to impeach Trump after the 45th president leaves office as ‘so ill-advised’. Yet he did not vote to acquit Trump in his Senate trial last year. He also voted against Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination after backing the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh. (In Kavanaugh’s case, he was the only Democrat to vote yes.)
This relative independence in an increasingly party-line Washington is precisely what makes Manchin a man to watch. The Georgia Senate races gave Democrats control of the Senate, but only once Kamala Harris becomes vice president and can cast a tie-breaking vote to organize a chamber that is split 50-50. Yet Manchin could be the real tiebreaker.
That would be bad news for progressives in the mold of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Manchin opposes eliminating the legislative filibuster, which means most bills would still in effect need 60 votes to pass. That in all likelihood means no Green New Deal, no Medicare for All, no repeal of the Hyde Amendment banning most taxpayer funding of abortion. It even complicates the passage of ‘public option’ component to Obamacare, which Democrats failed to pass over a decade ago when they held a three-fifths majority in the Senate. More oddly given West Virginia’s poverty, he’s against $2,000 direct stimulus payments and for more-targeted aid.
Despite his vote against Barrett, Manchin opposes expanding the Supreme Court to increase the number of liberal justices. Other swing-state Democrats opposed court-packing in their Senate races but Manchin seems the likeliest to hold firm.
Or does he? Conservatives are skeptical they can rely on Manchin as a bulwark against the coming revolution. Democrats are angered and energized in the aftermath of the attack by Trump supporters on the Capitol. Manchin has sounded little different from his colleagues on that matter, notwithstanding Trump’s immense popularity in West Virginia. Manchin’s votes on Trump impeachment, then and possibly now, don’t inspire much confidence either.
There are two reasons beyond principle to think Manchin will want to play his hand differently in a 50-50 Senate. One is political self-preservation: he will next run for reelection in 2024, with a Republican presidential candidate on the ballot. That means he’ll need some ticket-splitters in a state that hasn’t voted Democratic for the White House since Bill Clinton’s reelection in 1996. Manchin won less than 50 percent of the vote in 2018, finishing 3 points ahead of his Republican challenger with a Libertarian winning 4 percent statewide. Manchin can’t continue on as the Squad’s best friend in West Virginia.
The second is power. As the decisive vote in the Senate, Manchin will be able to decide the fate of legislation. He may even be able to determine the course of the Biden administration. The incoming president made his deals with the ascendant progressive wing of the party, but he doesn’t entirely trust their political instincts. Entering his fifth decade in Washington, most of them spent in the Senate, Biden is also an institutionalist. Manchin could make that the most promising path for governing over at least the next two years.
Both of those reasons to maintain some measure of independence against Democratic conformists really add up to one: naked self-interest. That is not to say Manchin’s dissents from liberal dogma are necessarily insincere. But he is not a genuine conservative Democrat in the mold of Sam Nunn in the 1980s or Nunn’s fellow Georgian Zell Miller in his later years. Manchin rose from state lawmaker to governor in the middle of the Mountain State’s shift toward the GOP. He then won the right to fill the remaining Senate term of Klansman-turned-liberal icon Robert Byrd in the Tea Party year of 2010. Manchin is very much a political creature.
Indeed, Manchin has said he is open to statehood for the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, though one might think not too open — four additional Democratic senators in perpetuity would dilute the power of his vote. He is pushing for the confirmation of Biden’s pick for secretary of defense, Lloyd Austin, at a time when many liberals are balking at giving the retired general the required waiver to assume this civilian command post at the Pentagon. And Chuck Schumer has reason to do business with the 73-year-old: if Democrats lose Manchin’s seat, they may not win it back for decades.
The model for Manchin wouldn’t be the old-school Southern conservatives who by the Reagan years found themselves voting mostly with Republicans, or even Joe Lieberman, the pro-war liberal who found himself a pariah within his party as Iraq went south. It would be Arlen Specter, who briefly found himself the key swing vote in Barack Obama’s Senate not long before Manchin was elected.
But Specter, a Pennsylvania Democrat who turned moderate Republican and turned Democrat again, made a fatal miscalculation. Trusting assurances from Obama and Biden, Specter initiated his final party switch to give Democrats a filibuster-proof Senate majority. He then needed their help to win a Democratic primary the following year, but further lost his leverage when Scott Brown won a special election in Massachusetts that restored the GOP’s filibuster power. Obama and Biden kept their commitments, but national Democrats largely double-crossed him. Specter became a party-line liberal and lost the Democratic nomination anyway.
Manchin, by remaining a Democrat, could pull it off. He would also remain heavily courted were Republicans to retake the Senate two years hence following the midterm elections. That’s not to say it will be easy. A former Ocasio-Cortez spokesman says of Manchin’s occasional bouts of intransigence, ‘I think we just don’t have time for that.’ Not a bad campaign advertisement for West Virginia, come to think of it.