The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Berating Joe Manchin won’t do Democrats any good. Here’s what they should focus on.

Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) speaks with journalists at the U.S. Capitol on May 28. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)
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There is understandable anger and resentment in the Democratic base toward Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) for his incoherent insistence on bipartisanship in an era of Republican radicalism and obstruction. But hollering at Manchin for refusing to defend voting rights is not going to accomplish much. Democrats should understand why and consider what to do about it.

The tools available to discipline party members are already weak, especially in the Senate, where seniority and comity typically prevail. Plus, the rise of “dark” money means members are no longer dependent on the party to fund their campaigns. In other words, keeping all senators on the same page is like herding cats.

Add in the 50-50 split, and it becomes clear how little leverage Democrats have. Take away Manchin’s committee seats? Throw him out of the conference? Congratulations — you have just spurred him to switch parties and give Republicans the majority. The only reason Democrats were able to pass the American Rescue Plan and confirm capable nominees is that Manchin provides the 50th vote — which, combined with the vote of Vice President Harris, makes Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and not Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) majority leader, gives them control of the floor and hands them the gavels on committees.

Consider also that Manchin has made his political career in a conservative state by distancing himself from national, more progressive Democrats. His current stance on voting rights and the filibuster is part and parcel of his strategy. Threatening to primary him or withhold support in 2024, when he is up for reelection, is futile. For one thing, he might not run. For another, no one can point to a more progressive Democrat who could win the state and keep the seat.

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In short, Democrats can holler and threaten all they like, but it will likely be ineffective, if not counterproductive. I have yet to see public shaming of a senator result in a major shift on policy. That leaves Democrats with two basic strategies, which are not mutually exclusive.

First, induce Manchin behind closed doors to put forward a bill he would favor. Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) made the argument succinctly:

The perfect forum to do so would be in private settings, such as Manchin’s sit-down on Tuesday with NAACP President Derrick Johnson, Al Sharpton and the heads of the National Urban League, the National Council of Negro Women, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

If there is no formula by which Democrats can pass any significant voting rights, what then? Well, Democrats could always go out and win big in 2022, increasing their margins in the Senate and House. After that, Democrats might have the numbers to curtail the filibuster. Moreover, a House Democratic majority would presumably be able to fend off another attempt to subvert the will of the voters by overturning electoral college votes in January 2025. (It sure would help if they could pass revisions to the 1887 Electoral Count Act.)

Yes, winning is the ultimate strategy for Democrats. Despite the gloomy punditry about the pattern for the party in the White House losing seats in the first midterm, this is no iron-clad rule. The pattern did not hold, for example, for Republicans in 2002 with George W. Bush or for Democrats in 1998 with Bill Clinton in the White House.

President Biden is currently quite popular and delivering on two main goals: beating the pandemic and spurring a recovery. Democrats need to keep producing results — even slimmed-down results (thanks to Manchin’s foot-dragging) — on as many issues as possible that impact middle- and working-class voters. Combined with a ruthless attack on Republicans’ obstruction, habitual lying and attempt to overthrow the 2020 election, Democrats could well pick up seats. They need district-appropriate candidates, more rational deployment of resources (e.g., spend more in the Pennsylvania Senate race, very modestly in Alabama) and message discipline.

In short, the best way to defend democracy might not be to berate Manchin. Democrats instead should focus on beating in 2022 and 2024 the anti-democratic party that threatens to overturn elections and turn us into a banana republic. Nothing beats winning elections.

Jennifer Rubin is getting her own weekly live chat, where she’ll answer questions and respond to comments from readers on the news of the week every Friday at noon. Submit yours to her first chat, launching on June 11, here.

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