West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin gives new meaning to the old saying that the most dangerous place to be in Washington is between an ambitious politician and a television camera.
While rushing frantically from studio to studio to appear on ABC, CBS, CNN and NBC Sunday news programs, Mr. Manchin could still humbly and with a straight face tell Chris Wallace of Fox News that he neither sought nor particularly enjoys his role as the most powerful swing vote in an evenly divided Senate. Running around Washington to get in front of all those cameras in one morning must have been tiring and exhilarating for a senator who seems far more interested in attention than in principled influence.
Mr. Manchin’s love affair with television began in earnest during the Obama years, when the then-obscure West Virginia Democrat signed on as the major co-sponsor of a controversial Senate gun control measure that thrust him into the national spotlight. The measure didn’t pass, but the attention was exciting, and Mr. Manchin seems to have discovered that characterizing himself as a moderate willing to work out deals with his party’s liberal leadership on key issues would guarantee him even more time in front of the cameras as long as he came down on the right side in the end.
When compared to the likes of Sens, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and even Chuck Schumer, Mr. Manchin may be something of a moderate, but at the end of the day he always seems to end up voting with them on important issues while arguing to his constituents and the media that he only does so because he has been able to make legislation better than it might otherwise have been.
The bottom line is that Mr. Manchin will break with his party’s leaders only on minor issues or when it doesn’t matter. Given his history, Republicans who are today hoping and perhaps even praying that his stated opposition to eliminating the filibuster and packing the courts will enable them to defeat these proposals tomorrow should be looking for support somewhere else.
His agonizing over what to do about his party’s desire to kill the legislative filibuster is classic Manchin. At first, he attracted attention by pledging that there is no way he will support such a move, concerned as he is with Senate tradition and the rights of the minority. Within weeks, however, he began to agonizingly begin his slide down the slippery slope he’s travelled so often in the past by suggesting that maybe he’ll be able to support reasonable or “common sense” reforms that won’t totally eliminate the filibuster.
Those who would like to believe that Mr. Manchin is opposed to eliminating the filibuster should realize that it is more likely that after all the hemming and hawing the West Virginian will find that he can vote with Mr. Schumer after all.
This Manchin three-step has become familiar to Senate watchers and was most recently performed exquisitely in the runup to the Senate vote on the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 stimulus bill. Mr. Manchin insists that the bill that passed was much improved because it included tweaks he insisted on after getting “input” from friendly Republicans and moderate Democrats. It turns out that during the negotiations, he did manage to extract something he really wanted: last-minute language prohibiting states that accept stimulus money from cutting state taxes prior to 2025.
Odd language from a supposedly moderate Democrat, but Mr. Manchin was in a fight back home with Republican Gov. Jim Justice, a former ally elected as a Democrat, who switched parties in 2016. Mr. Justice proposed cutting the state’s income tax rate to stimulate economic growth in the Mountain State, but the thought that Mr. Justice might win points with West Virginia voters was apparently too much for Mr. Manchin.
As the vote on the stimulus package neared, Mr. Manchin saw his opportunity to block Mr. Justice. Mr. Manchin’s language must have been an easy sell to his Democratic colleagues who are almost religiously opposed to all tax cuts, but Senate Republicans objected while Ohio and several other states striving to cut taxes on its citizens immediately sued, accusing Congress of unconstitutionally dictating state tax policy.
Mr. Manchin at first denied the language was his, but ’fessed up when analysts and reporters found his fingerprints all over it.
Mr. Manchin continues to insist that he is a common sense, middle of the roader, but the record suggests otherwise. Through his media performance, he gives cover to Democratic liberals as they pursue their goal of centralizing power in Washington and implementing an agenda opposed by the very voters he claims he represents.
What he may not fully understand is that transparency is a sometimes-unwelcome by-product of celebrity. That is something he might think about as he prepares to face the voters of the Mountain State in four years.
• David A. Keene is an editor at large for The Washington Times.