The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Joe Manchin has no time for consequences

Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) speaks in Washington on March 3 about a proposed ban on Russian energy imports. (Mariam Zuhaib/AP)
4 min

Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) twice this past week reprised his favorite role: the lone voice. The first instance — signaling interest in a new energy and social policy bill — was familiar to any Washington watcher. The second — openness to a no-fly zone over Ukraine — was different from Manchin’s standard way of standing apart. But there was a common thread in Manchin’s remarks: an assuredness that, whatever happens, he won’t feel the consequences.

Usually, when Manchin stands apart from the two major parties, he positions himself between them. That wasn’t the case Sunday, the day after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky beseeched members of Congress to support a Western-imposed no-fly zone over Ukraine. Across the political spectrum, lawmakers were skeptical.

“I think we need to be clear that we are not going to go to war with Russia,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) on “Fox News Sunday.” On the same show, Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) concurred: “I do agree with Senator Chris Murphy. I think that we cannot engage with Russians.” On ABC’s “This Week,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) agreed: “It means starting World War III.” Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) expressed similar doubts: “It’s very difficult to do.”

But on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Manchin was the one senator to express openness to the idea. “Do you support doing this, which could trigger a wider conflict?” asked host Chuck Todd. “I understand that,” Manchin replied. “But to take anything off the table thinking we might not be able to use things because we’ve already taken them off the table is wrong.”

It’s not clear why Manchin believes that because a measure is off the table now, it is off the table indefinitely. Many of the sanctions being imposed on Russia and Russian interests now were off the table only a few weeks ago. But treating a no-fly zone like another rung on the policy ladder is troubling regardless. As Rubio — hardly a dove — said, “I’m not sure a lot of people fully understand what [a no-fly zone] means. … It’s not some rule you pass that everybody has to oblige by. It’s the willingness to shoot down the aircraft of the Russian Federation.”

That Manchin could brush aside those consequences with just three words — “I understand that” — is disappointing, but not surprising. A wealthy U.S. senator would be among the last people to feel the direct consequences of a bigger European conflict. He won’t be flying the fighter jets, or feeling the pain of spiking gas prices.

That is the common thread between Manchin’s openness toward a no-fly zone and his broader record of undercutting one Democratic priority after another: Since President Biden entered office, Manchin repeatedly has taken stances where the consequences fall on others’ shoulders. In his interview with Todd, for example, Manchin noted that inflation is “affecting every West Virginian and every American that I know of. … And it’s hurting the people that need it the most, people that are working like the dickens, trying to make a living.” What Manchin didn’t mention is that, thanks in no small part to him, those “people that need it most” no longer have measures such as the expanded child tax credit that would have passed in the Build Back Better spending package.

Manchin may have felt good about taking a stand, but he’s not the one suffering. Over the past year or so, we’ve seen the same thread in his hampering of measures to fight climate change, election reform and more — the fallout of which will last for decades after Manchin is gone. Manchin’s dithering and obstinacy might be good for his political survival and for getting what he wants in bills, but it is a major reason the White House still struggles for legislative accomplishments as elections approach. As a result, Donald Trump — last seen praising Kim Jong Un’s leadership — is a coin flip away from becoming president again.

In closing the interview, Todd inquired whether Manchin was negotiating with either the White House or Senate leadership. When Manchin said there weren’t any “formal” negotiations ongoing, Todd asked, “You threw it out there and is it up to others to come to you?” The senator didn’t answer the question — but then again, he didn’t have to. With Manchin, the burden is always left for someone else to carry, no matter the consequences.