Occasionally, when I’m visiting with friends or family out of town, or even when a stranger from another part of the country finds out what I do for a living, they’ll ask, “So, what’s the deal with Joe Manchin?”
My usual response is a sigh and neck roll, as I mull whether to give them the long version or the short version, or just say “I don’t know. Now, will you please let me go back to staring with envy at this smoothly paved road?”
Sen. Manchin, D-W.Va., is now a household name. Although Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., is edging into Manchin’s proprietary and anachronistic centrism, the main question about any major legislation Democrats want to get through while they have this slim majority in both chambers of Congress while also occupying the White House, is “What will Manchin do?” This is quickly followed by “Why is he doing that?”
I usually try to explain that Manchin has always been this way, or at least this is how he’s been as long as I’ve followed his career, which is at 14 years now. He’s never been a liberal firebrand, to the great consternation of some and the satisfaction of others. He genuinely believes in compromise, no matter how many times Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., pulls the football away just as Joe’s trying to kick it.
There are deeper criticisms, such as the condition of the state Democratic Party since Manchin has had the reins, and concerns about ties to special interests that come with every member of Congress, but people outside of West Virginia don’t care about that. They just marvel at a man whose political stylings, as they see it (and as I do, too, sometimes) should be studied in a museum, rather than actively deployed in the Senate chamber.
Of course, when I explain these things, the immediate follow-up question is, “Well, why is he so insistent on negotiating when the other side won’t come to the table?”
That’s when I say, “I don’t know,” and I really mean it.
Manchin does good work in building bridges, and some of his proposals really do improve these massive legislative packages, or at least make them hypothetically palatable to some Republican senators. But that’s the thing. It’s all hypothetical. Manchin has, time and again, given Republicans what they ask for to support a bill, and McConnell simply sets the bridge on fire, then says he wants another, more flammable one built. Meanwhile, Manchin has to fend off more liberal members of his own party who want the original, Cadillac of bridges they proposed in the first place.
Manchin sees himself as a dealmaker. It’s hard to know sometimes if he really believes compromise is needed to better benefit the country and his constituents, is weighing the concerns of a state that voted for Donald Trump by nearly 70% twice or simply enjoys the attention. I don’t think his motivations can be boiled down to one thing. But, at the end of the day, I don’t really know. No one does (maybe not even Manchin himself).
I get the frustration from outsiders. I feel it, too. The stakes are high, and we’ve put ourselves into this political pressure cooker where it feels like it’s all or nothing, and that could well be because it is.
It’d be wonderful if Congress were a place where ideas could be shaped by mutual debate toward a goal of what’s best for the people, but that’s hard to even type out without a bitter chortle. Frankly, the kids from “Lord of Flies” were less cruel and tribalistic than what we have in Washington these days.
So, what will Manchin do? If I had to guess, I’d say he’ll continue to try and play a gentleman’s game that long ago devolved into a dog-fighting ring, while pretending he hasn’t noticed.