So far in the Biden presidency, there has been inauguration week, impeachment week, impeachment trial week, and now, it seems, we have arrived at Joe Manchin week.
The West Virginia Democratic Senator seems to be at the center of basically every issue swirling around American politics these days. He basically knifed the Cabinet-level nomination to lead the Office of Management and Budget, Neera Tanden, when he expressed his opposition to her confirmation. He may do the same to another Biden Cabinet nomination, this time for Interior Secretary. He also is a key reason why Congress won’t be passing a $15 per hour federal minimum wage and is potentially to blame if Democrats lower the price tag of the COVID relief bill.
Anyone who has known Manchin over the years knows he enjoys the attention. He also enjoys wielding the power that the current make-up of the Senate gives a moderate like himself, who is willing to buck his own party. Remember, Manchin last year voted to convict Trump and then almost immediately publicly flirted with the idea of endorsing him for president. Got that?
It’s understandable, then, if people from all political backgrounds are asking a basic question: What’s the deal with Manchin, anyway?
To understand him is to understand the three following things:
Joe Manchin began his political career running for office as a Democrat in a deeply Democratic state. Then over the last two decades, West Virginia took a hard turn to the right, first on social issues and then going all in for Donald Trump. Indeed, Trump beat Hillary Clinton there by 42 percent in 2016 and he beat Biden there by 39 percent last year. For context, Trump’s margin of victory was higher only in Wyoming.
In other words, while Manchin grew up in an environment where anyone in West Virginia politics had to be a Democrat, being one there today is very difficult. After all, the sitting governor, Jim Justice, was elected as a Democrat and then switched to being a Republican once in office.
So as much as many conservatives and liberals see the Manchin bipartisan talk as schtick, there is a political necessity to staying at arms length from many other Senate Democrats. He needs to have the branding that he is somehow different.
Robert Carlyle Byrd represented West Virginia in the US Senate for 51 years, making him the longest-serving senator in US history. If one drives around West Virginia, his name can be found literally everywhere: on roads, bridges, buildings, you name it.
During his time in the Senate, Byrd used his seniority to gain power, and with that power, bring home money to his financially struggling state. For that, he was appreciated.
Byrd died in office and the next person elected to the seat was Manchin. Manchin sees it as his responsibility to live out that part of Byrd’s legacy, partly because his constituents expect him to deliver federal dollars for his home state.
Should Manchin have been simply a quiet, reliable Democrat, he would wield less power and might have been voted out of office. Byrd is the model for West Virginia and if Manchin isn’t going to play that way, then the state’s voters might as well as vote for a Republican instead.
The Senate dynamics
There is an inside game in the US Senate right now that few Americans care about or follow, but it is critical to understanding Manchin and how legislating with him will work.
The Senate stands at a 50-50 partisan breakdown. Practically speaking, that means that any Democrat can sink a bill, and any Republican can be the actual power player if they decide to cross the aisle.
There is a group of Senators who want to fill the attention-grabbing role that Manchin is playing this week, including Maine Republican Senator Susan Collins. So part of what may be motivating Manchin is to quickly make a statement that he is the deal-maker and that all things Senate must go through him first.