Understanding Joe Manchin

Understanding Joe Manchin
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In bastions of blue in New York and California, I hear variations on this question: “Why did Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinPolitical purity tests are for losers Former coal exec Don Blankenship launches third-party presidential bid Centrist Democrats seize on state election wins to rail against Warren's agenda MORE, a Democrat, vote to confirm Brett KavanaughBrett Michael KavanaughGOP senator compares impeachment inquiry to Kavanaugh confirmation Christine Blasey Ford receives ACLU courage award Election 2020: Why I'm watching Amy and Andy 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 HeitkampThe Hill's Morning Report — Biden steadies in third debate as top tier remains the same Trump wins 60 percent approval in rural areas of key states Pence to push new NAFTA deal in visit to Iowa MORE (D-N.D.), Claire McCaskillClaire Conner McCaskillMSNBC's McCaskill: Trump used 'his fat thumbs' to try to intimidate Yovanovitch GOP senator rips into Pelosi at Trump rally: 'It must suck to be that dumb' Iranian attacks expose vulnerability of campaign email accounts 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.

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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 John TrumpDem senator says Zelensky was 'feeling the pressure' to probe Bidens 2020 Dems slam Trump decision on West Bank settlements Trump calls latest impeachment hearings 'a great day for 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.

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.

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 McConnellOvernight Health Care: GOP senator says drug price action unlikely this year | House panel weighs ban on flavored e-cigs | New York sues Juul McConnell hopes Senate impeachment trial 'not too lengthy a process' Former Speaker Boehner's official portrait unveiled 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?”

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

Steve IsraelSteven (Steve) J. IsraelThe bizarre circle of Donald Trump, Rudy Giuliani and Mike Bloomberg The Tea Party has died of hypocrisy Specter of Nixon impeachment looming over Republican Party 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.