The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Joe Manchin has all the power — and a catastrophic lack of imagination

Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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Every politician will tell you they ran for office to accomplish things, to create positive change, to help people, to make their community and the country a better place. It’s not always easy to accomplish, particularly if you’re a legislator who needs the agreement of dozens of colleagues every time you want to pass a bill.

But what if just one lawmaker had, at least for a moment, all the power, and could get whatever they wanted? If that was you, what would you do with it?

Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia is being asked that question. And what is his answer? Nothing.

In recent days, Manchin (D) has been in a position that a member of Congress enjoys only about once in a generation, if that. With that power, he could do just about anything. Yet not only has he given up what could have been an opportunity to completely transform his state — which can certainly use the help — but his ambitions and perspective have only gotten smaller.

We’re here because the Senate is divided 50 to 50, and Democrats hope to pass a significant portion of President Biden’s domestic agenda in the reconciliation bill known as Build Back Better. In theory, having zero votes to spare means every senator is the 50th vote, and every senator can make whatever demands they want.

But in practice, only those who can credibly threaten to kill the entire bill can make demands. And there are only two Democratic senators — Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) — whom anyone believes would be willing to see the bill fail.

So as he looks over all these initiatives and programs nearly all his colleagues want — including some he doesn’t particularly like — Manchin could ask himself, “If I were to assent to all this, what would I want in exchange?”

He could look at his home state and say, “How about a Marshall Plan for West Virginia?”

Manchin’s colleagues would be happy to do it. If he said, “I’ll support most of what the rest of the Democrats want, but I want $100 billion for West Virginia,” they would say yes in a heartbeat.

Any wish the state’s citizens desired could be granted. Rebuild every school, repave every road, give scholarships to every high school graduate who wants to go to college, bring hospitals and community centers and new businesses to every corner of the state, make West Virginia the nation’s new technology hub. Let your imagination run wild.

But Manchin has no visible imagination.

Instead, all his demands have been negative — not what he might use this bill to accomplish, but how he can stop what other Democrats want to do.

Some of it seems to come from his apparent contempt for ordinary people. For instance, he doesn’t want to extend the Child Tax Credit, he reportedly told colleagues, because people would just spend it on drugs.

In other areas, he says he’s defending his state’s interests. But that means he wants to keep the state just as it is, ranking at or near the bottom compared with the rest of the states in per capita income, educational attainment, life expectancy — we could go on.

So is Manchin fighting to help West Virginians? For instance, his opposition to measures to address climate change supposedly comes from his deep concern for constituents who have relied for so long on the coal industry. But coal has been in a long decline in the state; according to government data just 11,000 West Virginians still work in coal.

Manchin’s vision for the future of coal country seems to involve nothing more than letting the state’s ownership class — including him and his family — squeeze the last drops of wealth from a dying industry, then leave the people who labored in that industry with few economic prospects.

Yet for just a few billion dollars, we could give every one of them a new house, a truck and a seed grant to start a small business. Manchin could have asked for something like that and a whole lot more, and he would have gotten it. But he didn’t.

You could argue that Manchin isn’t ideologically inclined toward lots of government spending. Fine. But what does he want, other than to cut things out of the BBB that other Democrats favor? No one seems to know, maybe because the answer is that he doesn’t want anything.

Which raises a broader question: Is West Virginia a better place because of Manchin’s time in the Senate? More prosperous, more vital, more fair, better positioned for the future? What has he actually done for West Virginia?

Even if it’s hard for one senator to completely transform his home state, this is Manchin’s chance to do it. He’s in a position to do for West Virginia what no senator has ever done for their home state, if he really wanted.

But he doesn’t seem to want to. He has all the power, and no imagination. This failure has to be counted among one of the greatest lost opportunities in the history of Congress.