Analysis: Joe Manchin on the fate of Joe Biden’s agenda

The West Virginia Democrat, who sits at the fulcrum of the Senate balance of power, suggested the US Capitol insurrection was a warning for him — of the divisions tearing America apart and the dangers wrought by politicians who abuse their power.

It might surprise some of his fellow Democrats, however, to learn that Manchin now appears to believe that the appropriate response to those horrific events is to prevent either side in the Senate from exerting their will over the other. If that means thwarting a bid to overturn supermajority filibuster rules in the Senate that could buckle Democratic dreams of a radical and historic Joe Biden presidency, that appears to be a risk he’s willing to take.

“I’ve watched people that had power and abused it,” Manchin said. “I’ve watched people that sought power and destroyed themselves. And I’ve watched people that had a moment of time to make a difference and change things, and used it — I would like to be that third.”

Manchin makes his arguments as a Democrat from a conservative state that Donald Trump overwhelmingly carried twice. He’s not just in a delicate personal position. He’s the personification of a divided country, and — as the crucial swing vote in a 50-50 Senate — he’s enormously consequential for Biden’s agenda.

After laying out a series of limited gun restrictions earlier Thursday, the President pleaded with Congress to pass gun control legislation following a spate of mass shootings. But Manchin wouldn’t commit to a House-passed bill that would tighten background checks for firearms purchases. He also said he wanted to speak to Democratic Sens. Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock about federal voting rights legislation, following the passage of a sweeping election law in their home state of Georgia that discriminates against minority voters. He suggested he’d get Republicans to sit down with Democrats on an issue on which the two sides could hardly be farther apart.

The power of Joe Manchin

Asked whether he was enjoying his moment in the spotlight, Manchin said, “No.”

But the pressure is nothing yet, since he — and a small group of other more moderate Democratic senators — could end up as the roadblock to ambitious Democratic plans for sweeping reforms of the electoral system partly designed to counter those Republican voter suppression tactics. The coal-state senator could block Biden’s hopes to take the United States towards zero fossil fuel emissions. And if his reluctance to embrace the filibuster-dodging tactic of reconciliation stands, he could kill Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure plan that represents the second leg of the President’s ambitious plan to remake the American economy.

It is not clear at this point whether Manchin’s positions are absolute — or could be modified by events if, for instance, the Republicans with whom he wants Biden to compromise stonewall the President.

Joe Manchin just crushed liberals' dream for Joe Biden's first term

Manchin also made clear that he’s been in frequent and apparently friendly contact with a President who knows something about giving those whose votes he needs the space and respect to reach their final positions.

“We’ve had a good friendship and relationship for a long time. We understand each other,” Manchin told CNN.

A turbulent and fateful political period is about to ensue during a months-long effort by the President to build public support for his infrastructure plan. How it turns out could shift the ground on which Manchin is assessing his own position. It’s unknown whether Manchin’s current stance will be sustainable should Biden’s future bills prove as popular as the $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief bill — for which he voted. Disproportionate largesse sent West Virginia’s way in the infrastructure package might offer Manchin a route to approving the legislation. It is too early to rule out the idea that he is maximizing the power that fate has handed him to advantage his constituents.

It would also be quite a statement if he were to go down as the Democratic senator who effectively helped Republicans neuter a presidency born in a crisis that led to a sweet spot for fundamental political reform.

“I’m representing West Virginia to the best of my ability. And I’m trying to speak for my state,” Manchin said in the interview.

Trust in Republicans

At times, it seems that Manchin is the most naïve man in Washington. He often appears to be operating in an idealized version of the capital that no longer exists. He is, after all, trying to force cooperation between Biden and Republicans who have clearly signaled — even in the middle of a pandemic that has killed more than half a million Americans — that they want nothing to do with anything that could give the President a win. And there appears to be no common ground between Democrats who believe Republicans are already acting to steal the next election with a flurry of state bills that narrow access to voting and Republicans who believe Democratic voter reform efforts in Washington amount to an unconstitutional power grab.

But that’s not how Manchin sees it, as he explained when justifying his refusal to kill the filibuster. Unless he recants, it would be impossible for federal voting rights legislation to pass over Republican opposition in the Senate.

Manchin and the grim reality of Washington's minority rule

“I think we can find a pathway forward. I really do. I’m going to be sitting down with both sides in understanding where everybody is coming from,” he said. “We should have an open, fair and safe election. If we have to put guard rails on we can put guard rails on so people can’t take advantage of people. And I believe there are Republicans that feel exactly like I feel.”

Again, many Democrats — keen to take advantage of what could be a fleeting moment of power in Washington with their thin majorities in the House and Senate — will be infuriated with Manchin’s position.

Yet he is acting perfectly within his rights. And Democrats in effect handed him that power with what many of them regard as a disappointing performance in congressional elections that fell well short of the standard Biden set when he beat Trump. And if it wasn’t for a Democrat from West Virginia, who won reelection in 2018 in a Trump bastion, they’d be in the minority in the Senate.

Still, Democrats may find the logic of Manchin’s arguments about the Capitol insurrection hard to understand.

“January 6 changed me … I never thought in my life, I never read in the history books to where our form of government had been attacked, at our seat of government, which is Washington, DC, at our Capitol, by our own people,” Manchin told CNN.

But his comment that people went “to war with each other” in January is difficult to parse, since the mob that attacked the Capitol was inspired by Trump’s multiple lies about election fraud. There was only one side doing the attacking.

As the country moves farther from January 6, Manchin’s hot seat is only going to get more uncomfortable — but for now at least, he’s got no intention of vacating it.

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