Manchin is now the man of the moment, with the fate of the Democratic agenda in his hands in a 50-50 Senate. He’s going about it in his wide-eyed, can’t-we-all-get-along way that his colleagues might find grating if it weren’t so sincere. Senators in his party who agree with him from afar on delicate issues like the For the People Act and maintaining the filibuster call him a heat shield. He told a confidant that after the shock of the Jan. 6 insurrection, he feared a civil war could break out between and within the parties. He wanted to create a safe space for warring sides and factions to talk it out.
Call him what you want—and many use unprintable epithets—he looks like the Pied Piper as reporters and other senators follow in his wake as he goes to cast another vote that will enrage someone. Eight Democrats voted against raising the minimum wage but Manchin and Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema, a Green Party activist who’s tilted right since she ran for her seat in 2018, is generally inscrutable but something snapped in her that day. She flounced to the well in an exaggerated schoolgirl get up and what looked like a wig, gave a theatrical thumbs down, and flounced out seeming as happy to own the libs in that moment as Marjorie Taylor Greene is to taunt them every day.
It’s messy up there. Manchin is generally at the center trying to calm things down but often stirs them up. He said it was the GOP’s duty to vote for a commission to find out what happened on Jan. 6, insisting "You have to have faith there's ten good people."
No, you don’t when those ten good people in the Republican Party don’t show up even though the commission in question had already been watered down to a thin gruel with equal power between the parties and a hard stop on Dec. 31, no matter what. Republicans who believe subpoenas are mere invitations to show up would only have to stonewall for a few months before claiming to have exonerated the ex-president who demands it. Delay is their friend. Former White House Don McGahn finally came to Congress last week to give limited testimony on his own terms behind closed doors, four years after being ordered to do so and long after Ship Mueller set sail.
After bipartisanship failed in such an easy instance, surely Manchin would have realized he’s naive to believe anyone’s going to buy his belief in bipartisanship. Not at all. Afterward, he said he’s not “willing to destroy our government” by ending the filibuster over it.
No one benefits from Manchin’s belief that there’s a pony in the manure McConnell is shoveling more than Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. As long as Manchin is so publicly standing in the way of so much, Schumer can go home, have AOC stand on the podium next to him, and not get hit too hard by progressives for what he’s not getting done. Schumer’s up in 2022. AOC hasn’t said she’s going to primary him but she also hasn’t said she won’t, so keeping her close is in order. Manchin taking the hits also protects Schumer’s other members running in 2022, like Arizona’s Mark Kelly, New Hampshire’s Maggie Hassan, New Hampshire’s Jeanne Shaheen.
It’s unlikely any Democrat other than Manchin could win statewide in an increasingly Trumpian state. Trump won West Virginia by 39 points last year; as the Times noted; no other member of the House or Senate represents voters who favored the other party’s presidential candidate by more than 16 points. In 2018, two years after Trump won the state by 32 points, Manchin won a second term by just three points.
And for all his faith in Republicans now, it’s not true that the Democrat from West Virginia might as well be a Republican, as Joe Biden said this month when he said the reason he couldn’t get Democrats’ voting rights bill through was “two members of the Senate”—meaning Manchin and Sinema, “who vote more with my Republican friends.”
In fact, Manchin voted consistently against repeal of Obamacare and for Medicare for All, to preserve funding for Planned Parenthood, against Trump’s tax cuts (and for his impeachment), and periodically reintroduces a gun control bill he co-sponsored with Sen. Pat Toomey. He’s no longer high on S.1, the bloated For the People Act, but he wants to fatten and pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Act.
Still, I threw up my hands and said that’s it when Manchin stuck with the filibuster after losing the Jan. 6 commission vote. Didn’t he hear Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell say he is "100 percent focused "on stopping President Joe Biden's socialist administration? Imagine what he’d say about a Democratic president he hasn’t been friends with for decades. Then I read something Manchin wrote when he took a hard vote last year against the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett.
He warned that Republicans had chosen “a dangerous, partisan path” to cram Barrett onto the court an unprecedented eight days before an election. “The Senate is supposed to be the greatest deliberative body in the world… But each time a Senate majority–regardless of party–changes the rules, we reduce the incentive to work together across party lines” and “fan the flames of division.”
He’s applying that to his party now. And on Thursday it worked. The infrastructure bill that had appeared to be dead on Wednesday came back to life after hours and hours of Manchin talking it out in his safe place along with—you guessed it—a bipartisan group of 10 senators.
I still fear the country is paralyzed until the filibuster ends or McConnell’s obstruction does. Otherwise, an election has no consequences. But I no longer feel Manchin is wrong to play by the rules as they exist. He’s put his own seat on the line as collateral and so that others might survive. I’m sure he’s hoping for a pony to come out of it. I’m hoping too.