Manchin’s liberal critics sometimes imagine that they know more about winning a West Virginia election than he does — and that he could keep winning even if behaved like most Democrats. As Ruy Teixeira, another political scientist, wrote, “If only he was not the actually-existing Joe Manchin from the actually-existing conservative state of West Virginia but instead some other Joe Manchin from some other, much more liberal, West Virginia!”
It’s true that Manchin has helped defeat some Democratic priorities over the past two years. He doomed the extension of an expanded child tax credit that would have reduced child poverty. He refused to abandon the filibuster to pass changes to voting rights (although he wasn’t the only Senate Democrat opposed to doing so). He helped block two highly qualified Biden nominees, Sarah Bloom Raskin as a top Federal Reserve official and Neera Tanden as the budget director. But these Democratic disappointments were not shocking. Manchin has survived by being a loyal Democrat on some issues — like health care, labor issues, taxes on the wealthy and, for the most part, climate policy — and defying the party in high-profile ways on other issues. His criticisms of Biden’s proposals over the past year increased his approval rating in West Virginia, polls showed.
“It should be possible for Democrats to hold two thoughts at once about the West Virginia politician,” as Noel explained in The Washington Post. First, Manchin is more conservative than most Democrats and sometimes damages the party’s agenda. Second, he nonetheless may be the most valuable Democrat in Washington today. (If you believe Biden was the only plausible 2020 nominee who would have beaten Trump, then perhaps Manchin is in second place.)
Did the critics help?
With all this said, I understand some of the intensity of the liberal criticism in recent months. Had Manchin blocked the climate bill, as he seemed on the verge of doing, it would have represented a bigger break with his party than anything he had done before. It would have come on an issue of signature importance to the country and the world.
The obvious question is whether the criticism itself helped changed Manchin’s mind. I think that many of the harshest attacks probably didn’t matter: After all, he has heard similar criticism about his positions on the filibuster and voting rights, and he hasn’t budged. But the specific argument that he alone could be responsible for climate damage may have helped sway him. That, at least, is the impression of many observers on Capitol Hill.
“He always signaled he was open to going big on climate,” Representative Ro Khanna, a progressive California Democrat, told SFGate this week. And Carl Hulse, The Times’s chief Washington correspondent, told me: “Manchin did not want to be the man Democrats blamed for single-handedly letting the planet go up in flames. He was the one returning to Chuck Schumer looking to make a deal after the onslaught of criticism.”