— And What Democrats Can do about their Most Troublesome Senator
The West Virginia Senator is proving to be a major stumbling block to a progressive agenda, and progressives are going to have to change strategies to deal with him.
Ugh. Here we go again. No sooner did the digital ink dry on my last broadside against West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, then he once again went out of his way to undermine everything that his party, led by President Joe Biden, has set out to achieve. Writing in the Charleston Gazette-Mail, Manchin stated that he would vote “no” on the sweeping election legislation passed by the House and would likewise oppose any efforts to substantively reform, still less abolish, the filibuster. Manchin continues to chase after the unicorn of bipartisanship, seemingly reveling in the fact that he’s become a maverick.
Look, I understand that he’s in an unenviable position, as a Democratic senator in a state that has marched (or, rather, lurched) to the right over the past two decades. Like many other politicians (in fact, all politicians), he wants to keep his seat, and he has to know that if he leans too far to the left that it’s going to hurt his electoral chances. Since he’s not likely to change his party affiliation (though never say never), he has to do something to show his Trump-friendly constituents that he has some sympathy with Republican priorities.
That being said, everything that he’s said about his desire to work with those across the aisle betrays a fundamental misunderstanding about what today’s GOP has become. This is the party, after all, that refuses to believe that Trump really lost the election and that, as a result, is passing a whole raft of legislation to make it more difficult to vote, particularly for the constituencies that are more likely to vote for Democrats. This is also the same party that, as part of its voter-suppression efforts, is also making it easier for (presumably) Republican legislatures to overturn the results of elections that they happen not to like.
More to the point, as I’ve written elsewhere, the Republican Party has absolutely no interest in helping any Democrat, Manchin, Biden, or otherwise, get anything done. They have cynically concluded that anything that would equal a policy win for the Biden administration is beyond the pale, for their eyes are squarely fixed on the 2022 midterms.
One need look no further than Mitch McConnell’s avowed opposition to anything that Joe Biden and the Democrats wish to achieve. No policy proposal, no matter how much good it might do for the people of Kentucky (or Red America writ large), is acceptable to McConnell’s Republican Party. And, say what you will about McConnell (that he’s a loathsome person who’s more than willing to sacrifice his principles on the altar of power), he’s a very effective Republican leader. He knows how to keep his caucus in line, and if he decides that there will be no Republican support for a measure, you can rest assured that no amount of persuasion from Biden, Manchin, or anyone else will break the wall of resistance.
Which brings us back to Manchin. He says that he’ll vote against any “partisan” election legislation, and in so doing he’s already ceded valuable ground to the GOP. If there’s one thing that the Republican Party has become very good at, it’s labeling anything that Democrats want to do as either “overreach” or “partisan” or “radical.” The Democrats could craft a piece of legislation that includes every singe Republican priority — hell, they could even go all-in and implement the same sorts of voting restrictions that Republicans increasingly favor — and the Republican members of the Senate would still vote against it, just because it was put together by Democrats.
If Nero supposedly fiddled while Rome burned, then Manchin is going to chase after phantom Republican votes while the republic that he supposedly cares about so much likewise burns to the ground, all while the GOP pours gasoline on the blaze. Whether he’s been bought by some outside group, whether he really does have a Pollyanna-ish delusion about the possibility of crafting bipartisan legislation, or whether there’s some other explanation, there’s no question that Manchin refuses to see the truth about the Republican Party that he so desperately wants to work with.
So, what’s to be done about Manchin? I’m not among those who think that he should be primaried — he’s the best we’re going to be able to get in a state like West Virginia (and it’s entirely possible that, despite his persona popularity, that he might lose to a Trumpian Republican). Nor do I think that we should spend an inordinate amount of time attacking him from every direction. What we should do is continue to put pressure on him, and we should also do more outreach in West Virginia to show its citizens how Democratic priorities — from infrastructure to voting — would do them a lot of good. Manchin isn’t likely to listen to anyone who isn’t one of his constituents, and I don’t think that any amount of pressure from outside groups is going to work.
At a larger level, those of us who want to see progressive policies enacted are going to have to do a lot more to ensure that we secure gains in the Senate in the next few election cycles. It’s simply untenable for us to have to continue yoking the success or failure of progressive policy goals to the likes of senators like Manchin and Sinema, since both of them have shown that they stand for very little except for some fantasy version of bipartisanship. Of course, that will be an uphill battle in and of itself, considering the extraordinary control that the GOP has over many states, but no one ever said that the battle for the future of this country was going to be easy.
If Manchin is going to continue to obstruct the most important policy goals of Joe Biden and his fellow Democrats, it seems to me that they have no other choice but to proceed without him. At the moment, he’s a necessary evil, but in the future we’re going to have to look beyond Manchin if we hope to get anything accomplished.