Joe Manchin’s secret

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.)
Greg Nash

On a shelf in my office is a 2016 photograph of Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va) and me that tells you everything you need to know about survival in a hyperpolarized political climate. The image captures a small congressional delegation standing along a strip of curb that separates South and North Korea. In addition to Manchin and me, the photograph includes Sens. Angus King (I-Maine), Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.). Nearly five years after it was taken, only Manchin and King remain on Capitol Hill. They have withstood the ferocious partisan winds that swept away so many of their colleagues.

It was on that trip – to inspect U.S. missile technologies – that I got to know Manchin; to gain insight into his thinking. You can cover a lot of ground on long flights across the Pacific. We talked about how West Virginia had swung – veered, actually – from a reliably blue state to a ferociously red one where Republican elected officials outnumber Democrats by a 3-1 margin. How did Manchin survive as the only elected statewide Democrat?

Manchin has an innate sense of his voters. He doesn’t have a finger in the wind because he’s got it on their pulse. Sometimes there’s a malaprop, but on a plane somewhere between Japan and Guam, Manchin can take you through a mental roadmap of Main Streets in small towns across his state. He can tell you stories about the families, the mayors, the business owners, the miners, the men and women he’s met in a political career that began in 1982, when he was elected to the House of Delegates.

I asked him whether there was pressure for him to switch parties in a state Donald Trump won by over 42 points in 2016. He shrugged it off, noting that everyone in West Virginia knew him as a Democrat, and people can’t be fooled by changing labels.

In other words, if you pour beer into a Champagne bottle, everyone knows it’s still beer.

Manchin has become a target of progressives who insist that he toe the line. But is there really a wide tactical difference between them? Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) is a progressive warrior representing a progressive district; Joe Manchin is a militant moderate representing a conservative state. I hear the indignant chants: “But he’s a Democrat and should act like one!” Well, he could vote with the left, but, newsflash, one more Republican vote for Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in the United States Senate is not exactly a prized strategy.

The latest imbroglio is over an infrastructure bill. Progressives have threatened to “bring down” a $1.2 trillion bipartisan compromise unless it moves in tandem with a package that includes other priorities, such as universal pre-school, community college access, health care expansion and climate change initiatives. I strongly agree that America needs these measures. But the problem is the math of the 2020 elections: You can’t get everything you want when you don’t have everyone you need in a 50-50 Senate. There are ways, but they are fraught with risk.

Progressives have a paradox. If they want to reduce Joe Manchin’s power to block certain measures, they need to add Democrats and close-in on a filibuster-proof majority. But the 2022 Senate electoral landscape will be fought in moderate swing states in places such as Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Arizona and New Hampshire, where you win in the center.

So, we come down to the difference between partisan purity and electoral pragmatism. I often wonder whether Democrats fight for the perfect bill while Republicans fight to win the next election. With a 50-50 Senate and a slender House majority, the fight should be focused on the latter. That means they shouldn’t vilify Joe Manchin, who knows a few things about getting elected against the odds.

Steve Israel represented New York in the U.S. House of Representatives over eight terms and was chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015. He is now the director of the Institute of Politics and Global Affairs at Cornell University. Follow him on Twitter @RepSteveIsrael.

Tags Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Angus King Claire McCaskill Donald Trump Heidi Heitkamp Joe Manchin Mitch McConnell Progressivism Steve Israel West Virginia

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