What makes Manchin’s stances so aggravating? It’s not that his views are insincere. Unlike with some other senators, there’s no doubting the West Virginia senator’s earnestness. He hasn’t changed from running as a Green Party candidate and ardently backing a higher minimum wage to merrily voting against it, as Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) has. He hasn’t consistently promised to put principle over party only to fall in line when Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) commands, like Sen. Susan Collins (Maine) or a number of other Republicans have.
Perhaps the issue is the laziness of Manchin’s centrism. Rather than a mix of substantive policy stances, some left and some right, Manchin simply takes the middle of the two parties’ stances. For example, President Biden wants a 28 percent corporate tax rate, while Republicans want 21 percent. So Manchin backs 25 percent. Democrats want a $15-an-hour minimum wage, while Republicans want $10? Manchin supports $11. One gets the sense that if Manchin were told one side believes two plus two equals four and the other side believes it equals eight, he’d conclude that it equals six — and that saying otherwise divides the country. But this approach is not unusual in Washington, particularly among media voices who cling to a “both sides” view of politics. So that is not the crux.
Nor is the issue that Manchin is coming to the table empty-handed. He does at least support the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would restore and fortify portions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that the Supreme Court’s conservative majority struck down in 2013. That is a sorely needed remedy.
And he is not opposing a near-perfect bill. The For the People Act is a massive improvement over the status quo: It makes automatic and same-day voter registration the law of the land, restores voting rights to felons who are no longer incarcerated, restricts purges of voter rolls, strengthens campaign finance laws and boosts the power of small donors. But it has its flaws: The bill’s redistricting reforms, for instance, lack specific language that would help courts define and overturn gerrymanders. Why? Likely because more robust reform would lead some incumbent House Democrats to lose their seats, even though the party would gain overall.
But in neither his op-ed nor in his Sunday interviews did Manchin cite specific policy concerns, and here we begin to reach an answer. “Voting and election reform that is done in a partisan manner will all but ensure partisan divisions continue to deepen,” he wrote — without explaining how. He repeated the point on Fox News: “If we continue to divide [the country] and separate us more, it’s not going to be united.”
And as for passing the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act in a nonpartisan fashion, Manchin doesn’t have suggestions. “It’s starting out to be bipartisan,” he told CBS’s John Dickerson, before listing exactly one Republican, Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska — far short of the 10 he’d need to pass it (or anything else) without a filibuster. When Dickerson asked why Republicans would vote for a bill that would restrict their gains at the state level, Manchin replied, “If we can’t come to an agreement on that, God help us, John.” God help us, indeed.
This hopeful haplessness was evident when Fox News’s Chris Wallace asked Manchin whether he was being naive to expect Republican support, given Senate Minority Leader McConnell’s promise to block “100 percent” of the Biden agenda. “I’m not being naive,” Manchin insisted. “I’m going to continue to keep working with my bipartisan friends and hopefully we can get more of them.” Again, he has hope but no “how” — the epitome of naivete. Worse still was his claim on CBS that “my Republican friends and colleagues see the deadlock also. This is not something they desire or wish.”
That’s past naivete or foolishness — it’s straight-up delusion. Manchin has become the Senate’s Walter Mitty: a man who believes himself the champion of a fantasy and who has hope but no plan. He believes he will save the country by recruiting “10 good Republicans,” even though dreaming doesn’t will into existence that many Republicans who will cast a fair-minded vote. Anything that would snap him back to our partisan reality he either ignores or treats as divisive. Meanwhile, McConnell and the rest of the Republican Party laugh all the way to the ballot box.
That’s what makes Manchin so infuriating. In his mind, he’s the hero of this story. In truth, he’s the patsy. And the country pays the price for his delusions.