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Will Joe Manchin ruin the Democrats’ agenda?

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On a frosty February night, Joe Manchin III, the senior senator from West Virginia, invited a couple of colleagues to dinner aboard the houseboat he moored on the Potomac. In the past, opponents have tried to highlight the ship for political reasons; a 2018 advertisement by the National Republican Senatorial Committee called it a “$ 700,000 luxury yacht.” (In response, Manchin’s office reported that he had bought it second-hand for two hundred and twenty thousand dollars.) The boat, which he named Fast Heaven after John Denver’s description of West Virginia in Take Me Home, Country Roads, resembles a small ferry; it is sixty-five feet long and box-shaped, with tinted panes. It serves him as a residence during the nights in Washington, but also as a political prop. For voters who dislike the government, Manchin allows a 73-year-old Democrat in his third term to say he could hoist anchor and flee at any time; For friends in politics, it offers an off-shore meeting place for a casual evening, which Manchin considers vital for politics.

On that occasion, Manchin and his wife Gayle were accompanied by Senators Jon Tester, a Democrat from Montana, and Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine, who, along with Manchin, are occupying a small island of centrists in a violently divided Congress. Collins recently told me, “It’s becoming a lonely place.” Hours earlier, Collins had been one of seven Republicans to join the Democrats in the impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump for inciting the Capitol uprising on Jan. 6 to find him guilty. But the end result was 57:43, ten votes short of the condemnation. For those who had hoped that the tainting of the Capitol and the attack on the police would finally break Trump’s power over his party, the result was dire.

On board, Manchin’s guests ate Gayle’s spaghetti and meatballs while he made the drinks. After a few hours, Tester made his way home to his apartment on the other end of town, but as he walked down the gangplank, he found it was covered in ice. “My feet are all the way up to the ceiling,” he recently recalled. Manchin reached out to grab him, and he fell too. Both men began to slide. The tester’s foot hit the water. “I was looking for something to grab,” he said. “I finally got a piece of metal and stopped. Joe too. ”Tester was bleeding from his left hand; he asked Manchin if he was okay. “He says, ‘I think I broke my thumb.’ “(Doctors put braces on Manchin, but he took them off after a few weeks.)

In another year, the prospect of losing two Democratic senators overboard in an ice storm could be received with a certain dry resignation in Washington’s political class. This year, at least, it’s causing panic among Democrats: in a 50-50 Senate, the party’s agenda is just a vote – or a heartbeat – from oblivion. Manchin in particular has extraordinary power. Perhaps the most conservative Democrat in the Senate, he often breaks out of the party, giving him a de facto veto on a large part of the government’s agenda. In the early months of Joe Biden’s presidency, Manchin turned down Neera Tanden’s nomination for budget director (he disapproved of her tweets), refused to raise the corporate tax rate to twenty-eight percent (preferred twenty-five percent), and single-handedly narrowed unemployment benefits in a Covid Auxiliary law. Time and again, Manchin said he was driven by a fundamental belief in non-partisanship, the belief that Democrats could and must find Republican support for their legislation – an attitude so at odds with the current hostilities in Washington that they exclaimed a man who raised his glass to toast while his guests attacked each other with steak knives.

Manchin’s sudden clout after an inconspicuous decade in national politics has earned him almost ridiculous attention. He is followed by the political press, his comments are parsed for subtle variations, and he is courted by powerful figures on the right and left. Another evening on board the boat, he was dining with Ron Klain, the White House chief of staff, when President Biden called. “He says, ‘When are you going to invite me out there?’ “Said Manchin to me. “I said, ‘We’re going to find out how to get you in by water. They will never know you came. ‘ ”

Biden and his advisors ran a transparent campaign to get Manchin’s support. The last time the Democrats held the White House, it wasn’t much of a priority; President Barack Obama called him three times in eight years. In the first few months of Biden, he spoke or met Manchin at least half a dozen times. Biden called him Jo-Jo, said Manchin and added: “I don’t know where he got that from.” But he appreciated that the president wasn’t pushing him much to stick to the party line: “He’ll say, ‘Look, I’ll never ask you to vote against your convictions.’ I said, ‘I know that and I appreciate it.’ He just said, “If you can help me, help me,” and I said, “I’ll help you where I can,” and I said, “If I can’t. . . ‘“Manchin changed course. “I beg him, ‘We have to start doing some things in a non-partisan way.’ ”

Biden and Manchin have obvious similarities – two white Catholic Joes in their seventies, both ex-soccer players who pride themselves on their working-class roots long after they got rich. Basically, everyone pays less attention to ideology than to the practical horse trade of Congress. In Biden’s 2017 book Promise Me, Dad, he wrote, “Basically, politics depends on trust, and if you can’t build personal relationships, it’s terribly difficult to build trust.” Manchin is by the standards too a heavy Schmozer of his profession. Hoppy Kercheval, the host of an influential West Virginia political radio show, told me, “I’ve spoken to him a thousand times and there were times when I think I have to stop. He’s killing me. ”Manchin has distributed his personal cell phone number so widely that his co-workers have begged him to get a new one. (He refuses.)

Before joining the government full-time, Manchin worked mostly as a salesman – furniture and carpets, then coal – and you can tell by his enthusiasm for retail politics.

For many on the left, Manchin is an obstacle to history, spreading blackberries over patience and tradition at a time when partisan attempts to restrict access to suffrage could undermine the legitimacy of free elections. (In May, a column in Esquire was titled, “Fighting to Save Democracy, Joe Manchin is Neville Chamberlain.”) Adam Jentleson, a progressive political strategist and former Senate employee, told me: Senators get this from too many Sunday shows, too many Conversations with comfortable people who think they are living in a West Wing episode. “He continued,” Manchin making a deal with Susan Collins is not going to bring people together. The end result will actually be that we will adopt far weaker solutions than we could if he were more realistic about the world he lived in. ”In June, Manchin made the most controversial decision of his career: he vowed to join the opposed Democratic-signed electoral reform law, the For the People Act, for lack of Republican support, and refused to break the filibuster rule, the sixty vote threshold that would prevent his party from crossing it alone . Reverend Dr. William Barber II, civil rights activist and co-chair of the Campaign of the Poor, immediately announced plans for a moral march against Manchin in Charleston, the state capital, and tweeted that Manchin’s position was “wrong, unconstitutional,” historically inaccurate, morally not justifiable, economically insane and politically unacceptable. “

Manchin’s feud with Progressive Democrats centers on a fundamental difference in their view of the Republican Party. For many of his peers, the GOP has become an open enemy of democracy, perpetuating Trump’s lies about his 2020 loss and rewriting state laws to overturn future elections. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell made it clear, “Our focus is one hundred percent on stopping this new administration,” echoing his 2010 comment that “the most important thing we want to achieve is that President Obama is a president with a term. “McConnell will never cooperate from this point of view because it could allow the Democrats to win the next election by claiming political achievements and a breakthrough in party political deadlock. Harry Reid, Senator for three decades from Nevada and Senate Senate majority leader from 2007 to 2015, told me that some people underestimated the change in DC culture. “We have never been like this,” he says. “When Lyndon Johnson was majority leader for six years, overcame he two filibusters. In my first six years as a leader, I had to face and overcome more than a hundred filibusters. I think you can’t expect that the Senate is a place where it’s a kind of ‘kumbaya’ where you hold hands and sing. “

But when Manchin looks at today’s Republican Party, he is almost literally seeing his neighbors and friends. Since 2000, the West Virginia congressional delegation has gone from all Democrats to all Republicans except him. The state has voted for a Republican in each of the last six presidential elections, and in 2014 the state legislature moved back under Republican control for the first time since 1931. On January 6, it was circulated in the Senate that Trump supporters would visit the Capitol, Manchin initially did not expect the worst. “I’ve always been in favor of a good protest,” he recalled. “My instinct was: let them in! They raise all kinds of hell and roar. Let them in! Let’s talk! “He soon saw the horror of it -” Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought our form of government would be attacked, “he said – and during the impeachment process he voted for a conviction. But some people in the Republican Party never have that Trusted and determined to work with her again.

If politics is the art of the possible, Manchin’s likes and dislikes could determine what is possible for the Democrats – on police reform, gun safety, expanding labor and LGBTQ rights, and legalizing millions of undocumented immigrants – in the two crucial years before the mid-term elections, in which they run the risk of losing control of Congress. Like it or not his peers, his discomfort with some key elements of the progressive agenda reflects the views of millions of Americans, not just people like him – who we might call the Tommy Bahama Democrats, the wealthy boomers who are skeptical of Trump’s supportive friends, but do not intend to invite them to dinner – but also country voters who feel alienated from the Democratic Party. The power of Manchin is forcing the Democrats to broaden their focus on systemic injustices to include places like West Virginia, where poor schools, high levels of poverty, and suspicion of government fueled radical conservatism. In this vein, Manchin’s innate conservatism also limits the party’s instincts and prevents transformative changes that could drive out moderate voters in 2022 and 2024.

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