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Joe Manchin Is Attacking Democrats As If He’s a Republican
It’s the best way to win another Senate term . . . if he doesn’t run for president.
NO ONE KNOWS how to own the libs better than Joe Manchin, a member of their own party. And no one has been better at inspiring and then dashing hopes that he’s about to switch to Team GOP.
The elusive West Virginia Democrat is in the middle of (yet another) extended run of driving both parties crazy as he publicly mulls whether to run for re-election to the Senate or run for president on a third-party ticket. He could also decide to retire (he’ll turn 76 next month), but that seems the least likely path for someone who has such obvious enthusiasm for negotiating, deal-making, and being in the thick of the political fray.
My theory based on the evidence to date is that ultimately, when Manchin announces his decision at year’s end, he will tell us he is running for re-election. But first he will tease state and national Republicans with the prospect of an open Senate seat and/or a bipartisan No Labels ticket that polling shows would drain votes from President Joe Biden and elect the GOP nominee. If that is Donald Trump, it’s no stretch to predict disaster will follow.
On Monday, Manchin co-headlined a town hall sponsored by No Labels (the group working to get a bipartisan pair on the 2024 presidential ballot) in New Hampshire (one of the earliest, most important, and most independent-minded states of the presidential nomination season). This has “nothing” to do with a third-party presidential bid, Manchin told CNN last week. But with typical coyness, he did not rule it out. “The most important thing is: How do we help democracy do what it’s supposed to do?” he said.
Whatever that means.
There were plenty of platitudes at the No Labels town hall about working together, serving the nation, and ending divisiveness—and also a disturbing tendency to equate Trump and Biden, as if they were equally undesirable and their parties equally toxic. But Trump, who incited an attack on the Capitol to try to stay in power, is planning a frightening, dictatorial return to the Oval Office. Biden is more or less what No Labels seems to want: “a relative moderate who is eager to do bipartisan deal making,” as New York Times columnist David Brooks put it—including deals that Manchin has helped negotiate.
MANCHIN WON HIS FIRST ELECTIVE OFFICE in 1982 and has lost only one race in his life—a 1996 gubernatorial primary. He has been a state House member, a state senator, and the West Virginia secretary of state. He was elected governor in 2004 and 2008, and to the U.S. Senate in 2010 (to fill the remaining two years of the late Sen. Robert Byrd’s term), 2012, and 2018.
No Democratic presidential nominee has won West Virginia since Bill Clinton in 1996. Trump won nearly 69 percent of the vote there in both 2016 and 2020, and Manchin barely squeaked by his GOP opponent 49.6 percent to 49.3 percent in 2018. To say West Virginia is tough for Democrats is like calling a trek up Mount Everest an uphill climb. Both parties are convinced Manchin is the only Democrat who has any chance of winning statewide in 2024.
As a senator, Manchin has played a key role in both blocking and facilitating Biden’s agenda. In 2021 and much of 2022, he was a loud opponent of what he called the “mammoth” Build Back Better Act at a time of “staggering debt” and soaring inflation. Challenging Biden and progressives made him quite popular at home. In April 2022, his approval rating soared to 57 percent. But later that year, Manchin was a key negotiator and vote for the Inflation Reduction Act—a downsized, less costly version of Build Back Better focused on carbon reduction, energy investment, lower health costs, and more IRS resources to collect delinquent taxes. Republicans were furious and Democrats passed it by themselves. By April 2023, Manchin’s job approval had plunged to 38 percent.
In recent months, in what may or may not be a coincidence, Manchin has been criticizing Democrats as if he were a Republican and putting conspicuous distance between himself and the Biden administration. He made a splash Thursday when he came out against Biden’s labor secretary nominee, Acting Secretary Julie Su, citing concerns that her “more progressive background” will make it harder to “forge compromises acceptable” to management and labor.
Democrats have a mere 51-49 majority and several senators at risk in 2024, so the conservative website RedState.com was understandably excited. Its top trending story Friday morning ran under the headline “Joe Manchin Delivers Knife to the Back That Could Kill Julie Su’s Secy of Labor Nomination.” But conservative glee may be premature. Other Democrats could save Su’s nomination, and if they don’t, a federal law gives Biden the choice of keeping her on as acting secretary. In the bigger picture, if Manchin wants to stay in the Senate, resisting Biden improves his odds of winning another term.
Su was just one example of Manchin preserving and maximizing his option to run for re-election next year. Last month, he opposed Jared Bernstein’s nomination as chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors in order to “protect America’s economic stability and energy security from radical policies,” and he has opposed at least three of Biden’s judicial nominees since May, calling one a “partisan advocate,” questioning another’s “ability to be unbiased towards the work of our brave law enforcement,” and citing a third for “hateful words and partisanship” from the bench.
In March, Manchin put out a press release excoriating the administration’s “unrelenting campaign to advance a radical social and environmental agenda” after Biden vetoed his bipartisan resolution nullifying a rule requiring environmental, social, and corporate governance standards in retirement investments. In another release, Manchin said he had joined “all 49 Republican senators” in voting to repeal an “overreaching and unnecessary rule” expanding federal authority over streams and wetlands.
In an April appearance on Fox News, Manchin threatened to repeal “my own bill,” the Inflation Reduction Act, accusing Biden and his administration of ignoring fossil fuels. “This was about energy security and we have not heard a word about energy security out of their mouths since it was passed. It’s all about the environment,” he told Sean Hannity.
In May, Manchin attacked “this administration’s commitment to their extreme ideology” and “radical climate agenda,” and vowed to oppose all nominees to the Environmental Protection Agency until it halted its “overreach” on regulating power plant emissions. He came out against Biden’s nominee to be assistant EPA administrator last week. “The Biden Administration is hellbent on regulating the dependable power our country relies on out of business and ignoring and manipulating the laws of the land . . . to advance a radical climate agenda that puts both our energy and economic security at risk,” said the coal-state senator of the president from his own party.
The debt deal Biden negotiated and signed last month included explicit congressional approval of the nearly complete, 303-mile Mountain Valley Pipeline through West Virginia and Virginia, and an explicit ban on court action to stop it. Since last spring, it has won approvals from the Departments of Energy and the Interior and an endorsement from Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, who says it’s necessary for America and its allies during the transition to clean energy.
This was a huge achievement for Manchin on a project he says will create thousands of jobs and millions of dollars in tax revenue and land-owner royalties. He praised House Speaker Kevin McCarthy for agreeing to incorporate it in the debt deal. But environmentalists quickly sued and, as an Associated Press headline aptly put it, “Appeals court blocks construction on Mountain Valley Pipeline even after Congress says it can’t.”
The question of whether the court has jurisdiction is now before Chief Justice John Roberts, and pipeline developers want an answer soon. If the environmentalists win, Eric Levitz wrote in New York Magazine, that could hurt the climate. “Any legal precedent that makes it more difficult for the legislative branch to expedite infrastructure projects will do more to undermine the green transition than the carbon economy,” he wrote.
MANCHIN DOES SUPPORT many Democratic nominees and policies, and they are central to last year’s Inflation Reduction Act. But when he was asked at the No Labels town hall if he’s a Democrat or Republican, he replied, to laughter: “I’m the most independent Democrat you’ve ever met.”
Running against your own party is a tried and true tactic for politicians in precarious states or districts. When vulnerable House Democrats would attack then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi on the campaign trail, her response was classic realpolitik: “Just win, baby.”
Manchin says that if he gets into the presidential race as a third-party candidate, “I’m going to win.” But it’s a kamikaze mission at a perilous moment for democracy. And if Trump were to be nominated and win the White House, Manchin would be remembered as a spoiler in the mold of Ralph Nader, Pat Buchanan, and Jill Stein. His role enabling Trump to reclaim the office, amid indictments and trials, would be in the first sentence of his obituary.
Manchin could be remembered another way: as a deal-maker in barely Democratic Senates who helped keep health insurance and prescription drugs affordable, protected fossil fuel production for the short term, supported clean energy manufacturing for the future, and fought hard to keep his seat in a difficult year.
Maybe Manchin would win, maybe he wouldn’t, but he’s the Democratic party’s only hope in his state. Most Democrats, from Biden on down, long ago concluded he’s worth the trouble.
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