I come to explain Joe Manchin, not to praise him.
The West Virginia senator has earned the ire of the Online Left for single-handedly holding up legislation near and dear to progressive hearts, including ending the filibuster, because the party can afford no defections with the Senate split 50-50. His latest outrage is expressing opposition in a Charleston Gazette-Mail op-ed this weekend to H.R. 1/S. 1, the For the People Act, which would redress many of the wing-nut efforts taking place in red states across the country to limit voters’ rights.
Progressives also don’t seem to understand what’s at stake with an all-or-nothing approach on the issues — in this case, requiring Manchin to accept all 800-odd pages of S. 1.
As upsetting as some of Manchin’s stances might be, blue-state Democrats need to understand where he’s coming from, both geographically and politically, both before they attack him and as they plan political and policy responses. A lack of understanding of those with whom we disagree is at the root of much of our country’s current partisan division. If we incorporate this binary thinking into our party itself, it will only set us back further.
Yet based on these recent attacks, it’s clear that progressives don’t understand Manchin — and aren’t trying to. The essential context is that Manchin wasn’t elected in one of the blue states from which much of this criticism is originating, so his political realities are very different.
Manchin has been called an “electoral miracle,” and a quick glance at how other Democrats do in West Virginia shows just how much he is an outlier. The sheer math (Joe Biden got less than 30 percent of the vote in West Virginia) tells us he's lucky to have been elected at all.
That means if Manchin wants to keep his seat, he needs to be the kind of Democrat West Virginians will reward: centrist and independent, which sometimes means flouting the party when a sweeping, controversial piece of legislation is moving down the track with the winds of Twitter as its driving force.
Progressives also don’t seem to understand what’s at stake with an all-or-nothing approach on the issues — in this case, requiring Manchin to accept all 800-odd pages of S. 1 or face persecution from his own party.
The fact is the Democrats wrote this 800-plus-page document during a time when it had no chance of passing — in 2019, when the GOP controlled the Senate — so it’s packed not only with needed voting safeguards but also progressive wish-list items like redistricting and campaign finance reform. Because the measure itself would never come up for a vote, it was instead written as a “messaging bill” to cudgel Republicans and rally the Democratic base.
When Democrats took over the Senate, they didn’t do the necessary introspection and propose a more realistic version essential to securing the voting rights measures we sorely need as Republican states push a nationwide cascade of voter repression bills. Instead, they pressed on with the ambitious messaging version as though it were written in good legislative faith.
To give just one example, tucked within the 800 pages are things like the Freedom From Influence Fund, which creates a 6-to-1 federal matching program for small-dollar donors. That may be worthwhile, but it is overwhelmingly unpopular. Legislators from red and purple areas can’t reflexively pass provisions like these that have so little popular support if they want to get re-elected (never mind respect the will of their constituents).
There’s a difference between preserving the sanctity of American elections and inserting a wish list of priorities blatantly specific to one party, and that’s the point Manchin is so desperately attempting to make. In his op-ed, he described the debate over the bill as “not about finding common ground, but seeking partisan advantage.”
NBC News' “Meet the Press” First Read captured this dynamic succinctly Tuesday: “HR1/the For the People Act was designed as a messaging bill that includes not only voting-rights protections — but also redistricting and campaign-finance reform. And now Democrats have an activist base that’s upset and disappointed — over a bill that never had a chance for passage in a 50-50 Senate.”
But there are also parts of H.R. 1 that are popular and much more achievable. For instance, in his essay, Manchin also outlined his case for passing a version of the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. That bill would reinstate the full extent of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (a pretty good law!) and layer on additional protections.
In the 2020 election, progressives were confident there would be a landslide and so overshot reality with rhetoric that caused losses. The same thing is happening with the Senate agenda. It’s an approach that helps some Democrats and activist groups in deep-blue states with fundraising, greater prominence and the like, yet hurts red-district Democrats — and real people, including on voting rights.
If we’re going to be a Democratic Party that's truly for everyone, we cannot be intolerant toward leaders like Manchin, who choose to take the often lonely yet largely productive route of independence that appeals to voters from across the spectrum.
I live in South Carolina, and I don’t need to be lectured from Brooklyn or Boston or Berkeley about accepting less than what’s legislatively ideal with every bill considered in this country. Manchin’s positioning in West Virginia is part of the sacrifices necessary to keeping his seat blue, even if it’s a different shade of blue than other members of his party want to see from him.
To my good friends in blue states who tremble at the idea of a Donald Trump restoration in 2024, the future of your fearful imaginations is already a reality where I live. When I drive through rural South Carolina, I pass roadside markets selling “Trump 2024” flags. The Republican Party isn’t giving up on him, his approach or his ideologies anytime soon.
Hard as it is to imagine in sky-blue enclaves, there is immense value to a Democrat in states where the word itself is considered blasphemous. If we are to combat Trumpism, we need to allow Democrats like Manchin a little maneuverability. Incidentally, while Manchin is the most willing to stick his neck out, he’s not the only Democrat with these concerns.
There’s a difference between preserving the sanctity of American elections and inserting a wish list of priorities blatantly specific to one party.
If Manchin were to lose a primary to a more liberal Democrat, a threat launched just two weeks after inauguration toward Manchin and another moderate, it’s all but certain his Senate seat would turn red in the general election. Democrats need to realize that we simply do not have the ability to implement all of our gauzy progressive dreams.
There’s another reason why extending some compassion toward and recognition of Manchin’s circumstances would be helpful. While Republicans are known as the “fall in line” party, Democrats entertain a level of self-criticism and accountability that makes the party more diverse, welcoming and stronger. If we’re to remain the party that permits healthy dissension and some ideological diversity, accepting Manchin for who he is comprises a vital part of that.