Opinion | Campaign

Understanding Joe Manchin

Understanding Joe Manchin

In bastions of blue in New York and California, I hear variations on this question: “Why did Joe ManchinJoe ManchinJill Biden, Jennifer Garner go mask-free on vaccine-promoting West Virginia trip Manchin on infrastructure: 'We're gonna find a bipartisan pathway forward' Senate panel advances Biden's deputy Interior pick MORE, a Democrat, vote to confirm Brett KavanaughBrett Michael Kavanaugh Klobuchar offers tribute to her father, who died Wednesday Conservative justices split in ruling for immigrant fighting deportation Supreme Court weighs whether to limit issuance of exemptions to biofuel blending requirements MORE to the Supreme Court?” The question comes through pulsating necks and locked jaws, asked in tones of incredulity and shock.

In October 2016, I stood with Sen. Manchin (D-W.Va.), along with Sens. Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn HeitkampEffective and profitable climate solutions are within the nation's farms and forests Bill Maher blasts removal of journalist at Teen Vogue Centrist Democrats pose major problem for progressives MORE (D-N.D.), Claire McCaskillClaire Conner McCaskillDemocratic Kansas City, Mo., mayor eyes Senate run Demings asked about Senate run after sparring with Jordan on police funding Republicans fret over divisive candidates MORE (D-Mo.) and a few others, in one of the most dangerous places on the planet, the demilitarized zone that separates South Korea from North Korea. Manchin led the delegation, and I was the only lowly House member.

Now Republicans think they’ve placed many of those same senators on even more perilous territory, on the wrong side of a Kavanaugh vote in states that solidly support President TrumpDonald TrumpProject Veritas surveilled government officials to expose anti-Trump sentiments: report Cheney: Fox News has 'a particular obligation' to refute election fraud claims The Memo: What now for anti-Trump Republicans? MORE. The thinking is that voting for Kavanaugh would gut the small Democratic bases in those states, while voting against would energize Trump supporters.

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Putting aside the more vital issue of using a lifetime Supreme Court nomination as a partisan wedge right ahead of midterm elections, how does one explain the considerations those senators made in approaching the vote on Kavanaugh? Is it about party, principle, or the people they represent? What goes into the political calculus of defeating a judicial nominee or losing more Democratic Senate seats?

To understand his vote, you have to understand Manchin. He is, on principle, a conservative Democrat. It is part of his value system. No one should be surprised by his record because it is reliably right of center. He never pretended to be anything else. (Disclosure: I’m friendly with Manchin, Heitkamp and McCaskill. I’ve raised money for each of them but have not discussed with any of them what motivated their votes.)

By the way, that is what got him elected in a state that Trump carried by more than 42 points, a state whose Democratic governor switched to the Republican Party, and also endorsed Manchin’s reelection. If Democrats have any hope of winning back at least some of those now hardcore Republican voters in Charleston, Huntington or Wheeling, a guy like Manchin will have to design and engineer the bridge.

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But what about voting like a Democrat, I hear you say? Certainly a fair point. If politics was removed from the imperative of actually winning elections, Manchin could vote in a way he felt irreflective of his constituency and his values, and then Senate Democrats would potentially have one less vote to replace Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellOn The Money: Biden, Senate GOP take step toward infrastructure deal as other plans hit speed bumps Senate GOP to give Biden infrastructure counteroffer next week Masks shed at White House; McConnell: 'Free at last' MORE as majority leader, as well as one less vote on other critical issues.

Speaking of other issues, Manchin is now campaigning on core Democratic values like affordable health care and investing in education. Slowly and methodically, he has conservative West Virginia voters acknowledging that expanding coverage for preexisting conditions isn’t a socialist plot. It’s, well, it’s good for West Virginians.

Oh, so just because he’s with us on some issues, we should tolerate him voting against us on this one issue? Not necessarily. You don’t have to tolerate anything. But could you better stomach a Republican senator voting with Donald Trump on every issue? Because that’s the most likely alternative if Manchin loses or leaves. What if he ends up becoming a Republican, like West Virginia’s governor. Then what?

I once asked Manchin about Republican attempts to woo him to their party. He scoffed: “I was a Democratic member of the House of Delegates for four years, a Democratic state senator for 10 years, a Democratic secretary of State for four years, a Democratic governor for almost six years, and a Democratic United States senator for eight years. If I became a Republican, don’t you think people in West Virginia would see through that pretty fast?”

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I hope he’s right. Just not too far right.

Steve IsraelSteven (Steve) J. IsraelOpposition to refugees echoes one of America's most shameful moments White House races clock to beat GOP attacks Overnight Defense: Biden's stalled Pentagon nominee gets major support | Blinken presses China on North Korea ahead of meeting | Army will not return medals to soldier Trump pardoned MORE represented New York in Congress for 16 years. He served as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015. He is a novelist whose latest book is “Big Guns.” You can follow him on Twitter @RepSteveIsrael and on Facebook @RepSteveIsrael.