McManus: Joe Manchin drives Democrats crazy, but they need more senators like him
Senator Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., Speaks to a non-partisan group of lawmakers during a press conference to present a proposal for a COVID-19 relief bill. (Caroline Brehman / CQ appeal)
Senator Joe Manchin, the self-proclaimed Conservative Democrat from West Virginia, drives progressives crazy - and doesn't seem to mind.
People say President Biden's $ 1.9 trillion COVID relief bill is too high and he wants to cut it. He strongly opposes a $ 15 minimum wage, one of Biden's key campaign promises. He announced last week that he would not vote to confirm Biden's nomination to head the bureau of administration and budget, Neera Tanden, because her tweets during the campaign year found him too partisan. He did not decide whether to support Biden's election for Home Secretary Deb Haaland for advocating tight regulation of coal and natural gas, two major industries in West Virginia.
His refusal to support Indian American Tanden and Native American Haaland met with anger among progressives, who suggested that both women are of color.
MP Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) Complained on Twitter that Manchin voted to confirm many of then-President Trump's controversial candidates.
But the Senate Democratic leaders stay out of the fight and give Manchins a lot of respect for one simple, practical reason: He is their 50th vote.
Without Manchin, they have no functioning majority. Even with Manchin on their side, they still need Vice President Kamala Harris to break the tie.
When asked if his party had a Joe Manchin problem, Senate Democratic whip Richard J. Durbin of Illinois told a television interviewer, "We have a 50:50 problem."
Manchin is an unusual character in the increasingly polarized Senate: a Democrat who has voted for Trump's position on legislation more than half the time and tries to break almost every topic down the middle.
It is a throwback to the time when Southern Democrats, like his predecessor Robert C. Byrd, became power brokers precisely because their votes were unpredictable.
"This place is no longer working as it should," Manchin told me in December, referring to the Senate. "We're generally disgusted with getting nothing done."
He has called on Biden to form non-partisan coalitions with Republicans and offered himself as a mediator. "Let me know what you want to achieve and I can help," he quoted one of his conversations with the President.
He is disappointed that in his quest for a quick pass of his COVID-19 relief bill, Biden has largely ignored his advice.
It's hard to avoid the fact that Manchin likes to be the man in the middle - the senator that both sides want to woo.
His different positions also reflect who he is and where he comes from: a culturally conservative, anti-abortion, business-friendly democrat from a desperately poor coal-fired state.
His greatest passion in the Senate has nothing to do with ideology; It ensures that West Virginia receives as much federal spending as possible.
To achieve this goal, he was ready to evolve. Long a die-hard defender of coal mining - as governor of West Virginia sued the Environmental Protection Agency for prohibiting the removal of mountain tops - he seems to accept that coal jobs will never return and is now focused on creating jobs for the clean energy state .
His success in this kind of old-fashioned politics enabled him to hold his Senate seat for 10 years, during which time West Virginia, like other rural states, became firmly Republican.
In 2016, Donald Trump won West Virginia by a 42 percentage point lead, the second largest of all states (Wyoming took first place). In 2020, Trump won the state with 39 points.
Manchin ran against this red tide and won re-election in 2018 with only 3 points. No other Democrat won national office in West Virginia that year.
And that's why Joe Manchin isn't the Democrats' problem. He is part of their solution.
He is an example of how Democrats can win Senate seats in states where they have to win again: in rural states that, thanks to the constitution, have a proportion of Senate seats that is disproportionate to their population.
The 25 most rural states elect 50 of the 100 Senate members - and 40 of those 50 are currently Republicans.
"In order for Democrats to build a sustainable government majority, you can't do that as a bunch of large blue islands surrounded by an ocean of red," said David Axelrod, former advisor to then-President Obama. "It will not work."
To solve their 50:50 problem in the Senate, Democrats in states like Iowa, Montana, and Alaska, which they wanted to win in 2020 but lose, need to compete more effectively.
That means recruiting and supporting candidates who are attuned to the problems of farmers, ranchers, and miners - rural populists, not urban progressives.
What they need, like it or not, is more Joe Manchins.
This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.
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