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August 2021 Issue [Letter from Washington]

The Enemy Within

Why the Democrats don’t need Joe Manchin
Williamson, West Virginia © Roger May

Williamson, West Virginia © Roger May

[Letter from Washington]

The Enemy Within

Why the Democrats don’t need Joe Manchin

Eight days before the 2018 midterm elections, the West Virginia Democratic Party sponsored a campaign event in Morgantown. “Join us for an It’s All About West Virginia Rally and Luncheon,” read the invitation. Special guests included the president of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) and a Medal of Honor recipient, but the keynote speaker was Senator Joe Manchin, who was locked in a close reelection race against a well-financed Republican opponent. Bold red type across the bottom of the invitation declared all candidates welcome! Kendra Fershee, a professor at the West Virginia University College of Law, was the local Democratic candidate for Congress. Running on a moderately progressive platform—championing universal health care and support for small-business owners—she had been speaking at rallies around the district for months, and was looking forward to the event. It was in her home base, and many of her supporters would be there. But no invitation came to her, and when she called to inquire, Manchin’s campaign manager made it clear that she wasn’t necessarily welcome. “I was told I could come if I wanted, but I could not speak,” Fershee told me. “They said that the UMWA had endorsed my Republican opponent” and therefore didn’t want her onstage. So, although the state Democratic Party hosted the event, it was held solely for the benefit of one candidate: Joe Manchin. “He runs the party, and it only exists to support him,” said Fershee. “There’s no opportunity to grow the party, to promote our values and push back against the Republicans.”

Manchin is the last Democrat standing in West Virginia. Donald Trump took almost 70 percent of the state’s vote in 2020. All three of its congressional seats, as well as its state House and Senate, are held by Republicans. The governor is a Republican. As a Democrat who has managed to stay afloat in a sea of red, Manchin is an object of tremulous concern among fellow members of the Democratic caucus in the U.S. Senate, who deem him essential to their threadbare majority. But he comes at a stiff price. In particular, Manchin’s unequivocal pledge to stand by the filibuster rule—which he justifies with appeals to a vanished tradition of bipartisanship—dooms much of the vaguely progressive agenda with which the Democrats squeaked to victory last year, leaving them with little to show voters in 2022 or 2024. His objection to the For the People Act, vital in countering GOP voter-suppression laws, may in any case be a death knell for his party’s prospects at the polls.

Privately, Democratic lawmakers chafe at his commanding role. “He’s such a diva,” one committee chairman complained bitterly, reminding me that Manchin’s cherished filibuster precludes bipartisanship, as Republicans can and always will deny Democrats the necessary sixty-vote majority. “If bills could be passed with a simple majority, the Republicans would have to negotiate,” the chairman said, something Manchin surely understands. “Maybe he’s waiting for the opportunity to ride in as the hero and save the day. After all, it’s only the future of our democracy at stake!”

Despite such complaints, Manchin receives nothing but respectful attention in public from his Democratic colleagues. Even though he has noisily rejected the For the People Act, along with other key progressive initiatives, Senate Democrats quiver at any thought of sanctioning him. “The notion of kicking Manchin out of the caucus is idiotic,” one of them told me. “You can be sure McConnell would be on the phone the next morning offering him anything he wants.” His retirement is no less frightening; he would likely be replaced by a Republican so extreme as to make him look like a member of the Squad. This possibility is a key element cementing Manchin’s power in the Senate Democratic caucus, where I found nothing but grudging gratitude for the fact that he does whatever is needed to placate the red voters of his home state and thus supply Democrats with that all-important vote. Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut spoke for many of his colleagues when he told Politico, “If you want to have a Democratic Party in places like West Virginia, you have to be happy about somebody like Joe Manchin, right?”

This has been the Democrats’ siren song since the days of Bill Clinton, a perennial excuse for embracing corporate priorities. In Manchin’s case, at least, the argument has some basis in reality—Fershee lost by almost thirty points, and Trump increased his majority in the state in 2020. But Murphy’s comment carries with it the implication that West Virginia’s rightward tilt is not only irredeemable, but inevitable. A look at the state’s political history, however, offers a different picture.

In his pathbreaking history The Making of the President 1960, Theodore H. White huffed that although West Virginia’s politics were “sordid,” they provided “full-time gossip.” Little has changed. As Nick Casey, a former chairman of the West Virginia Democratic Party, remarked to me, “It’s a cheap state—where else can you run a statewide campaign for two million dollars?”

This has long made West Virginia a happy hunting ground for corporate interests eager to extract resources and profits. The state attorney general, Brooklyn-born Patrick Morrisey, formerly lobbied for an industry group that included the opioid distributor Cardinal Health, even as it poured product into his adopted state. Morrisey then enjoyed the financial support of several Cardinal executives when he ran for his current office, in 2012; accepted Cardinal’s funding for his inauguration party; violated a promise not to interfere in a lawsuit against Cardinal that had been filed by his predecessor; had no issue with his wife continuing to lobby for Cardinal after he was elected; and eventually settled the suit against Cardinal and other major distributors for a fraction of the money won in similar suits elsewhere. Despite this well-publicized record, West Virginians have reelected him twice, most recently with a hefty majority in 2020.

Manchin may shine in comparison, but the truth of his record is well known in West Virginian political circles. As a newcomer to the state legislature in 1983, for instance, Manchin reportedly held hostage a bill curbing hospital costs pending passage of an obscure measure favoring physical therapists, the profession of one of his uncles. Hewing to a straightforward pro-business agenda, he ran for governor in 1996 and was soundly beaten in the Democratic primary by Charlotte Pritt, a coal miner’s daughter with a mildly progressive platform.

Strange as it may seem now, there was no reason why Pritt, though an unabashed liberal, should not have gone on to defeat the Republican candidate, an aged relict of state politics named Cecil Underwood. Democrats had enjoyed a near-total lock on statewide offices, including the governorship, since the days of FDR, whose picture still hung in working-class households next to that of John F. Kennedy. The longtime West Virginia senator Jennings Randolph had been a steadfast champion of civil rights and environmental protections. Manchin’s own uncle, A. James Manchin, had aggressively promoted civil rights as a delegate in the state legislature back in the Forties. But despite endorsements from the UMWA and Bill Clinton, who would easily carry the state in that year’s presidential race, Pritt lost the gubernatorial election by six points. A longtime NRA member, Pritt was nonetheless smeared by Republicans as opposing gun rights. To this day, she believes that Manchin had a lot to do with her defeat, exercising revenge for his loss in the primary. “It’s the only time he ever lost, and to a woman!” she told me. Despite signing a written pledge to the contrary, Manchin announced weeks before the general election that he could not support her, citing her lack of “integrity and character.” Pritt believes Manchin was behind Democrats for Underwood, a group powered by business interests fearful of Pritt’s liberal agenda. Commentators at the time agreed that the splinter group’s success in splitting the Democratic vote was key to the Republicans’ victory.

The bitter race was a turning point in West Virginia politics. Pritt, who had served four years as a state delegate and four more as a state senator, was “very popular,” recalled the Charleston Gazette-Mail reporter Phil Kabler, who has covered the statehouse for more than three decades. “Had she won,” he told me, “it’s possible we could have had a multiyear progressive government in West Virginia.” Instead, he said, “mainstream state Democrats that year sent a message to voters that it is better to elect a Republican as governor than to hand the keys to the state over to a progressive Democrat.” He pointed out that 1996 was also a turning point nationally for the party, with Bill Clinton announcing that “the era of big government is over” and endorsing Republican-sponsored welfare reform. As West Virginia went, so went the nation.

Senator Joe Manchin in his office on Capitol Hill © Doug Mills/New York Times/Redux

From then on, Democrats increasingly opted for corporate-friendly centrist candidates, who in turn gave way to corporate-friendly Republicans. All the while, it remained among the poorest states in the country. After a pickup in the early Aughts, the state’s population has been sinking steadily since 2012. As of 2019, almost a third of the state’s children are in families that are either hungry or behind on housing payments. As a consequence and accelerant of these sad conditions, the number of fatal opioid overdoses has ticked remorselessly upward, reaching their highest point ever in 2020. Throughout this period, Democratic control of the state withered away.

Manchin bucked the trend. Following his loss to Pritt, he hired her campaign manager, Michael Plante, and ran successfully for secretary of state in 2000 and then for governor in 2004. In a crucial makeover, he entered into an enduring alliance with the UMWA while retaining warm relations with the business lobby, particularly its coal and gas components. Reelected in a landslide in 2008, Manchin made a long-predicted move to the Senate in 2010, winning the nine-term senator Robert Byrd’s vacated seat in a special election. By 2017, Manchin was one of only two Democrats left holding statewide office. (The other was the state treasurer.)

Pritt, who stayed active in politics but never won another election, insists that Manchin “has always been a Republican.” Rank-and-file Democrats in the state may yearn for a progressive agenda—Bernie Sanders absolutely crushed Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential primary—but they have no voice in the state party and get little or no support when they run for office, even in districts where they might have a chance of winning. For example, Denny Longwell, a former United Steelworkers official, ran in 2018 for a state Senate seat in a district that had elected a Democrat—running unopposed—only six years earlier. “The state party gave me essentially no help, no money, and no advice even when I asked for it,” he told me. His Republican opponent romped home. Manchin had shown no interest in endorsing Longwell. Like many West Virginian activists I spoke to, he does not regard Manchin as a survivor of the party’s electoral decline, but as an active agent of its downfall.

“That’s right,” agreed David Fryson, the pastor of the New First Baptist Church of Kanawha City. Like pretty much everyone I spoke to in West Virginia, he prefaced his remarks with “I like Joe,” but argued forcefully that Manchin’s Republican-lite approach had cost Democrats dearly. As evidence, he cited Manchin’s recruitment of Jim Justice, a coal-mining magnate and a registered Republican, to run for governor under the Democratic banner in 2016, thereby depriving any genuine Democrat of the opportunity. Once in office, Justice waited only seven months before announcing that he had rejoined the Republican Party (while sharing a stage with Donald Trump). Manchin “controls all levels of the party, from the top down,” Fryson said.

Nevertheless, concerns about Manchin sabotaging a progressive Democratic agenda do not cut much ice with his base. “We’re not interested in his legacy,” Kent Carper told me from Charleston. “We’re one of the smallest, poorest states in the country, devastated by change. We need help now.” Carper, the president of the Kanawha County Commission, was gloomily tallying Kanawha’s weekend toll of opioid overdoses when I called—fifty-four, up ten from the same period last year, which was three times the figure from 2019. “The opioid epidemic wasn’t a disaster,” he said firmly. “It was a crime, a criminal attack by pharma.” After rattling through assorted other woes close to home—school buses traversing unsafe bridges, a decrepit airport—he spoke enthusiastically of Manchin’s current power and the bounty he could bestow on Kanawha County. “He’s in the room of all rooms,” said Carper.

The example he cited was the 2020 CARES Act, which was rushed through Congress early on in the pandemic and allotted billions of dollars to state and local governments. But it was up to the governors to dispense the funds as they saw fit. In West Virginia, that meant Justice, the Manchin protégé and party apostate. The governor’s Republican rebirth spurred an exit of Manchin loyalists throughout his administration. Adding insult to injury, he even fired Manchin’s wife, Gayle, from her post as secretary of education and the arts. Casey, Manchin’s friend, who had been hired as Justice’s chief of staff, was summarily fired. Justice, he remarked vehemently to me, “has the loyalty of a gnat.” The governor has made his own rude remarks about his former patron. “Joe Manchin is selling his influence and making money,” Justice told journalists without offering evidence. “[Manchin] has been a politician forever, yet he is a rich man. How could that possibly be?” he continued. Manchin issued a statesmanlike retort stating that “policy differences do not justify personal attacks.”

The policy difference at issue concerned Biden’s stimulus initiative, the American Rescue Plan. As the incoming administration prepared the bill, Carper and others feared that Justice would once again get control of the funds and sit on them, as he was continuing to do with a large portion of the previous year’s money. “We started calling Senator Manchin right after the election,” Carper told me. “I talked to him several times while he was on the floor of the Senate.” Manchin did not disappoint, lobbying the incoming administration to make the necessary adjustment, for which he took full credit. The act duly apportioned $678 million directly to the city, town, and county governments of West Virginia. Kanawha County got $35 million. “Good for the counties, and a stick in the eye for Justice!” said Casey happily.

Manchin’s diligent efforts to be seen as a direct agent of federal largesse attest to his emphasis on retail politics. Thanks to the state’s tiny population—1.8 million—West Virginians expect to have close relationships with their politicians. Manchin’s ability to connect a name to a face years after a brief encounter is legendary and politically invaluable. (“The most important words a constituent ever wants to hear from you,” a veteran Democratic congressman once remarked to an aspiring candidate, “is their name.”) Manchin is equally known for his readiness to fix personal problems, even for political opponents. “He’ll meet with anyone,” said Andrew Cockburn—no relation, really—the co-founder and former chairman of the progressive West Virginia Working Families Party. Describing Manchin’s mode of operation, Cockburn invoked the scene in The Godfather where people line up to solicit and receive favors from Don Corleone. “I’ve opposed him, but I mentioned to his staff that I was having a problem with the IRS. He fixed it in two days.”

Ironically, while Manchin worked hard at dispensing local and individual favors, he was withholding them on a national level, taking a very public stand against the extension of supplementary unemployment benefits and threatening the passage of the $1.9 trillion stimulus until the checks for millions of Americans were suitably trimmed. He even vetoed any prospect of raising the minimum wage to $15, a real blow to the livelihoods of many of his constituents, 63 percent of whom, according to one poll, thought the hike was a fine idea.

Manchin honed his ability to deliver for his voters while he was governor, when he could, as his friend Casey put it, “pick up the phone and tell someone to do something and it would happen.” But power in the Senate is more opaque. The machinery is baroque, and not by accident, permitting skilled operators—Robert Byrd was an acclaimed master—to secure their objectives without attracting undue attention. The process is facilitated by the immense length and obscure language of most bills, running to thousands of pages. “They’re written by the staff, and read cursorily, if at all, by actual members, who generally can’t be bothered to get past the executive summary,” according to longtime senior Senate staffer Winslow Wheeler. Provisions can be inserted into a given bill by means of the managers’ package, a wish list that is passed by voice vote, leaving the public ignorant of how their representatives have voted.

But members may choose to highlight legislation they have helped create, and Manchin is certainly active in this regard, trumpeting in press releases precisely who gets a share of the $4 billion allotted to his state by the Biden rescue plan. Earmarks—through which members of Congress direct specific sums to favored projects—have returned this year after having been formally banned for a decade as unseemly enablers of corruption. Manchin has a special page on his website, unique so far as I can tell among senators, where constituents can apply for them.

While outsiders tend to discuss U.S. senators in terms of ideology—whether they lean to the left or right on issues of the day—insiders talk in a different way, stressing members’ allegiances to particular interests. Assessing Manchin’s performance on Capitol Hill, one former senior Senate staffer with a long memory noted how the West Virginia senator “takes care of energy” (meaning coal and gas) “more than Byrd, who concentrated on appropriations”—i.e., sponsoring federally funded projects and gifts such as the Coast Guard’s National Maritime Center in the mountain town of Martinsburg.

Manchin has been taking care of energy ever since he arrived in Washington in 2010, quietly inserting measures into appropriations bills to aid the coal industry as it struggles for life. The 2018 Energy and Water Development and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, for example, included a Manchin amendment supporting “small-scale and modular coal-fired technologies with reduced carbon outputs.” That, of course, was in the days when McConnell ruled the Senate and Democrats had to wheedle and maneuver to get anything into law. Even then, Manchin had a lot of influence, not least because of the gregarious energy with which he cultivated relationships on the Hill, as well as in Trump’s White House. “We always worked hard to sign him on for confirmations,” one former Trump Administration official told me. “It was one way of softening up Schumer and Durbin. Even when he was voting no, he would often personally call the nominee to give the news.” Lawmakers of both parties have enjoyed convivial outings on Almost Heaven, the sixty-five-foot houseboat that is Manchin’s home while in Washington. As one senator described it, “The music is playing and the cocktails are flowing.”

On January 6, everything changed. Georgia voters handed control of the Senate to the Democrats, thereby promoting Manchin to the coveted chairmanship of the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, overseer of all legislation related to Biden’s cherished climate-change agenda. Evidence of his importance to Biden has been visible in administration job announcements, most obviously Gayle Manchin’s appointment in April as co-chair of the Appalachian Regional Commission, a body created in the Sixties to lift the mountains out of the Third World by sponsoring infrastructure and other projects spurring economic growth. Given the vast sum of federal dollars at its disposal, the commission has long been a desirable and potent source of patronage. Gayle Manchin’s appointment was therefore more than an appeasing gesture from Biden to a powerful senator—it offered real power. Section 218 of the president’s January 27 executive order on the climate crisis, for example, established a working group to “coordinate the identification and delivery of Federal resources to revitalize the economies of coal, oil, and gas, and power plant communities,” obviously important in channeling prospective billions in climate funds. As co-chair, Gayle Manchin was specifically nominated as a member of this group.

Elsewhere in the energy sector, a lower-profile move saw Sarah Venuto, formerly a key Manchin aide, appointed director of external affairs for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). This little-known but immensely powerful agency oversees interstate electricity transmission systems, oil and gas pipelines, hydroelectric projects, and power-company mergers and acquisitions. The enormous shale-gas deposits under West Virginia’s rolling hills, as well as those flattened and poisoned by coal mining companies’ hilltop removal operations, would be reason enough to have an ally at FERC. But the commission will have a lot to say about a particular project dear to Manchin’s heart: the proposed Appalachian Regional Energy Hub. This nearly $2 billion scheme, for which he says he is working “tirelessly,” will make use of vast caverns in the northern part of the state to store natural gas byproducts that can be used to produce plastic, which Manchin promises would birth an industrial powerhouse and generate one hundred thousand jobs.

In the administration’s early months, Manchin’s most popular bipartisan intervention was sinking Neera Tanden’s nomination to be head of the Office of Management and Budget. Given Tanden’s record of vituperative diatribes directed across the political spectrum, this was well received on both sides of the aisle. But a less publicized bipartisan initiative endorsed by Manchin carried more ominous implications.

Fittingly, it took place in the dark. The occasion was a vote related to Social Security, the lifeline that keeps millions of elderly Americans off the breadline. Franklin Roosevelt once said that he had arranged the system so that “no damn politician can ever scrap my Social Security program.” Politicians have been rising to the challenge for decades, deploying the dubious argument that the program will shortly run out of money and benefits must therefore be trimmed. At 3:42 am on February 5, senators voted to approve an amendment called the TRUST Act. Introduced by the Utah senator Mitt Romney and co-sponsored by Manchin, it was officially described as establishing “a deficit-neutral reserve fund relating to creating bipartisan congressional committees to improve the solvency of major Federal trust funds.” Even if Americans had been awake to watch their legislators at work on C-SPAN, they would have found it hard to understand what was happening.

Max Richtman, the president and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, understood exactly what the convoluted language meant when he woke to the news a few hours later. Workers’ contributions to Social Security are paid into one of the trust funds referenced in the title of Romney’s amendment, which, during shortfalls, help finance the meager benefits sustaining seniors. Current law, Richtman explained to me, forbids any alterations to the program without a sixty-vote majority in the Senate. But the proposed committees would have the power to draft bills that trim benefits. These bills could then be fast-tracked through Congress with minimal scrutiny. Richtman’s group is a potent force among congressional Democrats who, conscious of the importance of elderly voters, eagerly seek the organization’s endorsements and campaign donations. As Richtman explained, there is no need for cuts to the program because impending shortfalls can be met by lifting the cap on contributions. He was upset, he told me, to see that no fewer than twenty Democrats had voted for the bill. He had campaigned tirelessly for most of them in their recent elections, including Manchin. (Manchin’s Republican opponent in 2018, who was forcefully backed by Trump, was Patrick Morrisey, erstwhile champion of the opioid distributors.)

For procedural reasons, the TRUST Act did not become law in February. But Romney reintroduced the legislation in April. Again Manchin signed on as a co-sponsor, an especially ironic gesture given that the measure effectively suspends the filibuster he claims to support in order, potentially, to shrink Social Security. But the bill’s progress in the Senate raises questions that go beyond Manchin. Why might twenty Democrats—some with liberal reputations—vote for the pernicious measure? The urge to trim obviously runs deep in the Democratic Party, and it is a trait for which Joe Biden has long stood out as a shining exemplar.

Liberals have cheered Biden’s proposals to pump up spending on social programs, offering flattering comparisons to FDR and the New Deal. Certainly, his rhetoric marks a welcome change from the obeisance to austerity fatally championed by former Democratic administrations, including Obama’s. But on closer examination Biden’s agenda begins to look feeble at best, and certainly incapable of producing enduring change comparable to Social Security. The expanded child tax credit, Biden has told us, will likely be temporary; universal health care isn’t even on the agenda; campaign pledges of student-debt relief—which he could enact with the stroke of a pen—have been tossed in the trash; the $15 minimum wage disappeared from the stimulus bill without a fight. That last surrender was credited to Manchin’s definitive objections, in which he was noisily joined by the vulgarly opportunistic Arizona senator Kyrsten Sinema, who lacks even Manchin’s alibi of a Trump-voting home state. But, as in the TRUST Act vote, Manchin and Sinema were not alone. Sanders tried and failed to reinsert the minimum-wage provision. His amendment drew only forty-two Democratic votes, eight short of a majority, and there is scant record of a White House push to draw more.

Joe Manchin may be the poster child for obstruction of the new New Deal, a bulwark against progressive reform. But he also serves as a useful excuse for the Democratic Party, fronting for an establishment that has long recoiled from the Charlotte Pritts and Kendra Fershees of this world, yearning instead for the bipartisan embrace of a merciless enemy.

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