fb-pixel Skip to main content

Washington remains abuzz after a recent report that Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia has told people privately that he was considering leaving the Democratic Party if his demands on Biden’s social spending package aren’t met.

The package, a reconciliation bill the Biden administration has dubbed the Build Back Better bill, was originally proposed to be worth $3.5 trillion, and aimed to preserve the Affordable Care Act, provide universal pre-k, and address climate change, along with a long list of other ideas. Democrats, who run Washington, have been negotiating with themselves in a way that has brought that price tag down. A report on Monday said that Biden has told lawmakers privately that he is now looking at a $1.75 trillion to $1.9 trillion range on the final bill.


One of the most important figures in the negotiation is Manchin. He’s withheld his vote in the evenly split Senate until this topline number comes down even more.

“I’m at 1.5,” Manchin shouted to reporters when asked about Biden’s range.

But soon after that exchange, Mother Jones magazine reported that if Manchin didn’t get that $1.5 trillion number, he could leave the Democratic Party. No sources were named in the story, written by David Corn, a prominent Washington reporter.

Initially, Manchin dismissed the story as excrement from a farm animal.

Then on Tuesday, he extended an explanation to a Capitol Hill newspaper, saying that he had floated the idea to President Biden and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer that he could become an independent if that made life easier for them.

“I have told the president, Chuck Schumer, and even the whole caucus that if it is ‘embarrassing’ to them to have a moderate, centrist Democrat in the mix and if it would help them publicly, I could become an Independent — like Bernie — and then they could explain some of this to the public saying it’s complicated to corral these two Independents, Bernie and me,” Manchin told The Hill.


Much of the negotiations have been between Manchin from the center and Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont from the left. Sanders, chair of the Budget Committee, is an independent who caucuses with Democrats.

While in the same interview Manchin said that, “I’m not threatening to leave” the Democratic Party, the entire episode serves as a reminder that he has every incentive to leave. Further, if he went all the way, to either caucus with Republicans or become a Republican, he could ensure he remains in the Senate for the rest of his life and end the Biden agenda on the spot.

Incentive number #1: Leaving the Democratic Party basically ensures reelection for life

Manchin is a Democrat now because he has always been a Democrat. When he got started in politics in the 1980s, there was no other party for an ambitious West Virginia politician. He served in the state house and the state senate, and by the time he was Secretary of State in the early 2000′s, the legislature was consistently around 75 percent Democratic.

A lot has changed since then. As politics reoriented around culture instead of pocketbooks, West Virginia grew more Republican and by 2016, it was second only to Wyoming in the percentage of the vote that Donald Trump received.


West Virginia doesn’t appear like it will flip back to the Democratic Party any time soon. Obviously, running statewide as a Republican would be a lot easier for Manchin than convincing the state’s Republican voters that he is a different type of Democrat.

If Manchin removed the Democrat label he would likely not face serious opposition for his job, maybe ever. And that matters given that West Virginia politicians generally want to follow the example of Robert Byrd, who used a half-century of seniority to bring money to the relatively poor state.

Incentive #2: He would gain more power

As of now, according to the reports, Manchin has only floated the idea of becoming an independent and caucusing with the Democrats. This is an important point because it would keep Democrats in power and allow them to set the agenda on the floor and in different committees.

Obviously, if he were to ever caucus with Republicans or become a Republican it would be a huge shift in American politics. Republicans would have to offer him something valuable. At the moment it is unclear what that would be. When Vermont’s Jim Jeffords left the Republican Party and handed the Senate to Democrats in a similar situation in 2001, he got a committee chair role he liked. Well, Manchin already runs the Energy and Natural Resources Committee that is very important to his coal-producing state.

But there are obviously other roles.

Incentive #3: There are few downsides on paper


So he if he left the Democratic Party, Manchin could have more power and ensure reelection. Why wouldn’t he leave? Well, on paper, there really aren’t many reasons.

Instead, the only reason would be personal. Being a Democrat has been part of the identity of Manchin and his family. Further, Manchin appears genuine in his belief that the Senate needs to be a more collegial place where members work together.

He once headed up the group No Labels. He hosts bipartisan dinner parties on his houseboat. He talks urgently about the need for more unity amid the partisan divide.

The only downside of leaving the Democratic Party is that Democrats will simply stop talking to him.

But, then again, they will still want his vote.

James Pindell can be reached at james.pindell@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell.