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Is Joe Manchin positioning for a presidential run?

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) suddenly has emerged with that ever-shifting title “Most Powerful Person in Washington.” Over the past couple of months, Manchin, along with Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), has stalled President Biden’s domestic legislative centerpiece, the Build Back Better plan, a virtual Christmas tree of progressive dreams to drastically change America (although many progressives might balk at the association with Christmas as just one more misguided, traditional, unwoke, joyful celebration by the majority of Americans who still believe in those “backward” ideals of family and spiritual light, and drive progressives to create additional grievances to further split Americans … so, please, cancel that metaphor!). In any case, moving on.

Manchin has taken two, fully-centrist positions that would strengthen Biden’s political position and perhaps even draw broad, bipartisan support. 

First, he strongly pushed the House to pass the infrastructure bill that was passed by the Senate on as close to bipartisan support as we’ve seen in years.

Second, he raised detailed concerns about the Build Back Better plan based upon its overall cost (which he says would damage America’s economy) and specifics (which he believes are an unnecessary overreach, are not needed, and will not be effective). He met with the president and many members of the House and Senate to discuss his concerns. He held news conferences to make clear his views and concerns. 

In response, the House progressive bloc, led by Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), has refused to move forward on the infrastructure bill until some form of the Build Back Better program has reached complete approval by House and Senate Democrats. 

In political terms, Joe Manchin has set a bear trap, with the help of Kyrsten Sinema, and the progressives, along with the Democrats’ congressional leadership, are caught. They will have trouble escaping. Manchin appears firm that he wants the infrastructure bill passed by the House now and that the Build Back Better bill will require a lot more discussion and trimming. He has made clear his resistance to environmental policies, much of the social spending, Medicare expansion, paid leave, and the overall size of the bill. Sinema is holding the line strongly in resisting the drug pricing proposals. 

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and the House progressives are left with the tough choices of backing down and passing the infrastructure bill now, to give the White House at least one win, or agreeing to pass a largely gutted Build Back Better program with much of their wish list on the cutting room floor. To fail to do either would leave Democrats tied to an increasingly unpopular president with an unsuccessful domestic policy and a string of foreign policy disasters. Uncertainty and confusion now also will make the debt ceiling negotiations in December much more complex — and risk both a government shutdown and a U.S. debt default.

While currently isolated, along with Sinema, in the Democratic Party, Manchin has made it abundantly clear that he has no plan to leave the party as an independent, a Republican, or to form a third party. 

All of this might frame some of the most effective and courageous political calculus in a generation. There is a real possibility that Manchin and Sinema may create a tidal shift in Democratic Party politics that Manchin could ride to the White House, or at least to Democratic Party leadership. 

If the progressives blink, back down, and pass the infrastructure bill now, it may give Manchin a serious chance to form and lead a bipartisan moderate bloc in the Senate and attract the independent voters that the Democrats are now hemorrhaging to Donald Trump because of their radical woke policies. If the progressives hold out and crater the infrastructure bill and the Build Back Better bill and create chaos in the debt ceiling negotiations, they will get all the blame for a Republican landslide in the 2022 midterms. It also would end the chances for Biden or for Vice President Kamala Harris (and probably for any Democrat except Manchin) in the next presidential election.

In this scenario, Manchin brings a lot to bear on a potential presidential run. On the central issue of immigration, Manchin has visited the border this year (as opposed to Biden and the feckless Harris, neither of whom has visited the border since Harris’s visit in June). Unlike Biden, Harris and other likely opponents, Manchin has shown management competence and has effectively run a state as governor. He also had a successful business career.  

But most importantly, Manchin has shown himself to be a strong and fearless advocate for moderate, bipartisan politics — which makes him attractive to independents, as well as moderate Democrats and Republicans, all of whom fear another successful Trump run for the White House.

Will Manchin decide to consolidate his growing power and lead the Democrats and the country out of the woke wilderness? Time will tell. 

Grady Means is a writer ( and former corporate strategy consultant. He served in the White House as a policy assistant to Vice President Nelson Rockefeller. Follow him on Twitter @gradymeans1.

Tags Bernie Sanders Biden infrastructure Build Back Better agenda Donald Trump Independent voters Joe Biden Joe Manchin Kyrsten Sinema moderate Democrats Pramila Jayapal progressives

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