Develop a healthier emotional relationship with Joe Manchin
You're glad he's there — or at least you should be
In some of his disputes with liberals and mainstream Democrats these days, I think Joe Manchin is right on the merits.
Other times, he’s wrong. One of my great dreams in life is convincing Manchin that he’s wrong about the filibuster and its impact on our politics. I also think he misreads the evidence on child allowances and labor supply.
But I never get mad at Joe Manchin. When Robert Byrd passed away, he was 63 and the second-term incumbent governor of a state that Barack Obama lost by 13 points in 2008. By 2010, of course, the national political climate had become much more hostile to Democrats. Then-governor Manchin could have quite reasonably decided to serve out the remainder of his term and then retire rather than risk embarrassing himself by losing a Senate race. But he didn’t; he stepped up and ran. And won. And then ran again in 2012. Obama got 35 percent of the vote in West Virginia that year, but Manchin secured the re-election. By 2018, the guy was 71 years old. Lots of people retire well before 71. It would have been very sane and normal to retire at 71 rather than facing the toughest election of your life.
But Joe Manchin stepped up. Had he retired, the Democratic nominee would have definitely lost to Patrick Morrissey. America is lucky that Shelley Moore Capito is quietly reasonable despite representing a super-duper conservative state. Morrissey isn’t. But Manchin chose to run, and he won.
We should all be thankful.
Gratitude doesn’t mean always agreeing
This is something almost everyone understands.
But progressives often seem to obsess over whether each thing Manchin does that they disagree with is literally necessary to secure re-election in his home state. And the answer to that is probably no. The effect size of everything in politics is small, most stuff is low-salience, and he almost certainly could have thrown the left three or four more bones between 2010 and 2018 and still won re-election. And going forward, he’s almost certainly drawing dead in 2024 (if he runs at all) so the cost of going total YOLO would be low. Beyond that, while Manchin’s moderation is absolutely helpful to him politically, he — like most moderates — does not fully optimize his choices about when to moderate.
Nobody is above criticism and certainly not Manchin.
But I’m talking about something more basic than the question of whether you agree or disagree with a given politician. I want to talk about how people feel about individual politicians. Lisa Murkowski and Mitt Romney both cast tons of votes that I disagree with. But I appreciate both of them in the sense that they have both stepped up and done the right thing at certain key moments, and they are representing states where their replacement would very likely be worse. And interestingly, I think most liberals can see that. Murkowski and Romney aren’t heroes of progressive Twitter but they’re also not the objects of constant rage whenever they do a Normal Republican Thing. Most progressives can see that Alaska and Utah are very conservative states and recognize that it’s good for the country to have semi-sensible people holding down two of those Senate seats.
Trump got a considerably larger share of the vote in West Virginia than he did in Alaska or Utah. But Manchin isn’t sometimes saying or doing reasonable things that facilitate legislation or slow the erosion of democratic political institutions. He’s constantly facilitating the smooth operation of government and serving as progressives’ MVP.
The many clutch votes of Joe Manchin
The day Stephen Breyer announced his retirement, there was a 99.9 percent chance that he’d end up being replaced by someone good. Even if for some reason Ketanji Brown Jackson floundered and went down, the Biden White House would find another progressive jurist with a good resume. And while Manchin’s announcement late last week that he’d support Jackson’s confirmation was noteworthy, it was hardly surprising.
Biden has been installing judges at a record pace, and while this mostly takes the form of replacing older Clinton or Obama appointees who are making strategic retirements, he is nonetheless reshaping the judiciary both in terms of demographic diversity and professional background. Under Biden we are getting fewer prosecutors and corporate lawyers and more people with experience as public defenders or doing public interest work.
But check out the numbers his appeals court nominees are putting up in their confirmations. These are mostly very controversial picks, and Manchin voted for all of them.
The point here isn’t just his vote (though that counts), but that basically none of these judges would have been allowed to come up for a vote if Manchin had decided to retire in 2018.
Kamala Harris has been casting tie-breaking votes at a record-setting pace, with 51-50 votes flying past on nominations for everything from U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts to Director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Without Manchin, none of that is possible. And even if you want to take a generous view and say Mitch McConnell couldn’t just blockade everyone if he had a 51-49 Senate majority, progressive nominees in particular would stand no chance.
Avoid fandom politics
Just because Joe Manchin is objectively very valuable to progressive causes doesn’t mean that he has to be progressives’ favorite person.
You’re absolutely entitled, as a politics fan, to place a special premium on elected officials who mirror your views and exemplify personal qualities that you find admirable. After all, though Manchin’s value is extremely real, his story is kind of boring. He first held elected office in West Virginia back in 1986 when it was a blue state (Michael Dukakis won it in 1988). And he’s held statewide office in West Virginia since he was elected Secretary of State back in 2000, at which point the Democratic Party was extremely strong locally. He did two terms, then ran for governor, and is now the last man standing of an ancestral party.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg made a much better hero with a really inspiring personal story and career from before her time on the Supreme Court, a great voting record as a justice, and a celebrated arsenal of quips and dissents. It makes perfect sense that she’d attract a big fandom.
But in the crucial years of 2009-14, she wasn’t providing any value relative to the kind of person who would have replaced her had she stepped down. Manchin is a much, much better senator than anyone who could plausibly fill his seat, and we should all be glad every day he decides he’d rather show up to work than retire. RBG in the prime Notorious RBG years was the exact opposite of that — someone who’d had a great career, but whose work at the moment was extremely replaceable.
And I bring her up not because the fandom was undeserved but because her reluctance to execute a well-timed strategic retirement demonstrates the high price of fandom. Her personal sense of her own indispensability proved very costly to the causes she believed in. You can see this sense in other long-serving officials. Steny Hoyer is not accomplishing anything in particular as the No. 2 House Democrat at this point. Had he retired three years ago, that would’ve opened up a spot in the leadership roster for someone newer like Hakeem Jeffries, which would’ve let him gain some valuable experience before Nancy Pelosi inevitably moves on. More broadly, tons of geriatric elected officials occupy safe seats, and while lots of them are excellent people, we’d be better off on average if they moved on. Their own sense of self-importance is bad!
While RBG > JM3 is a perfectly reasonable calculus to make if you think about politics as a fan, the fandom lens is not a good way to think about politics.
Emotions matter in politics
On an intellectual level, none of this is very controversial.
Everyone understands that if Manchin said tomorrow, “I’m sick of arguing with you people, I’m resigning on Friday,” that would be a disaster for progressive politics.
Everyone who’s not insane understands that if the Democratic nominee in 2018 had been Not-Manchin, Democrats would have lost the seat and would not have the majority today.
Everyone also understands that whatever disappointment they may feel about the current state of the Biden legislative agenda, everything would be worse if Mitch McConnell were Majority Leader.
But I do think the emotional landscape matters as well as the intellectual one.
Progressives — by which, to be clear, I mean mainstream Democratic Party advocacy groups and the mainstream Democratic Party politicians they support, not “the Squad” or left-wing factionalists — overwhelmingly do not have an emotional stance of gratitude toward and appreciation of Joe Manchin. They instead have an emotional stance of anger. That manifests not just in lashing out on Twitter (which is unfortunate but not that significant), but in things like the bizarre decision last year to pivot the whole legislative strategy toward trying to jam Manchin up on a voting rights bill in a way that generated lots of people calling him racist but no voting rights legislation.
A much smarter strategy would have been to cave to all his demands and try to pass a Manchin-friendly version of Build Back Better.
Today, we are still limping toward the inevitable outcome of passing a reconciliation bill that Joe Manchin likes. But with several additional months of delay, high inflation prints, and intra-party ill will, his demands have gotten worse. Among the circuit of people whose politics are centered on being mad at Joe Manchin, that’s just further proof that he’s a bad guy. But the fact of the matter is that the day Warnock and Ossoff won in Georgia, the art of the possible flipped from “what Mitch McConnell is willing to do” to “what Joe Manchin is willing to do,” and every hour of every day that was not spent in polite, friendly conversation aimed at making sure all his needs were met was a wasted hour.
The way back is more Manchinism
It also matters for the future. In 2022, Democrats stand a very high chance of losing the Senate. Then in 2024, even if they have a good year and Biden is re-elected, they will almost certainly lose their existing seats in Ohio, Montana, and West Virginia. And there’s no easy road to recovery from there. Realistically, Democrats are going to need to nominate candidates who are as distant from the progressive base as Manchin is, but instead of running them in states like WV where Trump got 68 percent of the vote, they’ll run them in states like North Carolina (50%), Florida (51%), Texas (52%), Iowa (53%), Ohio (53%), South Carolina (55%), Kansas (56%), Indiana (57%), and Missouri (57%).
All these states are quite conservative. Trump did not win Florida by a large margin, but he won it narrowly in the context of losing the national popular vote by 4.5 percentage points.
But those are the states that you need to compete in to secure a majority. If Democrats held six of those 18 seats instead of one, they’d be much better off today. And while that doesn’t mean running carbon copies of Manchin for all of them, it does mean running candidates who have a structurally similar relationship to the base of the party. Not “moderates” in the sense of “agree with Joe Biden that we shouldn’t defund the police or do socialism,” but “moderates” in the sense of “have several high-salience disagreements with the mainstream leadership of the Democratic Party while also agreeing on some other topics.”
At some point in the 2030s or whenever, all kinds of mainstream progressives are going to be tired of losing and are going to get excited about a new crop of dynamic, ideologically heterodox candidates who are capable of winning races in right-of-center states. Losing hurts in terms of concrete policy, but also emotionally. And winning is pretty fun. The sooner that turnaround happens the better. But in theory, it could happen faster if more people would realize — not just in their heads, but in their hearts — that they are glad Manchin is around and would be sad if he left.