It’s possible, then, that Sen. Joe Manchin III’s (D-W.Va.) tenure in the Senate will be remembered for some moment of similar drama in service to his party’s more progressive policy goals. But, in the aggregate, that’s not who Manchin is — and the ongoing frustration from the left that he isn’t gives cover to other Democrats who are skittish about controversial policies.
For a casual observer, the idea that an elected Democrat in the Senate would insist on working with Republicans and would insist on preserving the filibuster might understandably seem frustrating. But we should remember that Manchin is not your average Democratic senator, in a very real sense.
He represents West Virginia, a state that is not only red but was one of Trump’s strongest states in 2016 and 2020. In each election, Trump did better only in Wyoming.
A measure of Manchin’s political ideology called DW-NOMINATE shows him right near the middle of the Senate. There’s a loose correlation between how moderate a senator is and how partisan his state is, a correlation that’s stronger within the Democratic caucus.
The extent to which Manchin is an outlier within his caucus — and, really, the Senate — is hard to overstate. Here’s that ideology score (vertical axis) compared to 2020 election results (horizontal). This is not the position of a person who’s going to line up with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) on every vote.
Manchin’s state voted for Trump by a wider margin in 2020 than the states represented by 47 of the Senate’s 50 Republicans. As we’ve reported previously, he is an exception even within his own state. In 2012, he was elected to a full term in office by a 24-point margin — in a year that West Virginia backed the Republican presidential candidate by a slightly wider margin. In 2014, the Democratic candidate for the state’s other Senate seat lost by more than 25 points. In 2016, Trump won the state by more than 40. But in 2018, Manchin won again, by about 3 points. That was a particularly favorable Democratic election cycle, certainly, but in 2020 the Democratic challenger to the state’s other senator, Shelley Moore Capito (R), lost by 43 points.
Maybe Manchin is still there as a function of luck. But to Democrats like Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), the Senate majority leader, that he’s there at all is useful in many ways at many times.
What’s more, there are no immediate prospects for the Democrats to do without Manchin. In 2022, there are six Senate races listed as toss-ups or only leaning toward a party, according to Cook Political Report. If the Democrats win all six, they pick up four seats — more breathing room to pass legislation in a chamber that needs a majority vote to pass legislation.
But, of course, the Senate is not such an institution. Instead, the chamber usually requires 60 votes, thanks to the use of silent filibusters to block legislation. This has been a focal point of consternation over Manchin over the past few months, his insistence that he won’t throw out the filibuster. Instead, he favors working with Republicans to craft bipartisan legislation — something that has not emerged as a viable path forward.
Manchin and Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D) are the focal point of a lot of the left’s hand-wringing over the filibuster, in part because they are the most moderate members of the Democratic caucus and, in part, because they keep talking about it after being asked. But even between the two of them, Manchin absorbs a lot more media attention, thanks in part to his more proactively injecting himself in policy negotiations.
What might surprise many on the left, though, is that it is not the case that converting Manchin and Sinema on the filibuster suddenly gives Democrats the votes to throw the rule out. As I wrote in March, there are several other Democrats who are not enthusiastic about getting rid of the filibuster — but you don’t hear about them much because so much attention has been placed on Manchin as a central roadblock.
That same pattern certainly applies to other policy issues, too. Manchin is seen as the face of filibuster obstruction and the filibuster is justifiably understood as blockading Democratic policy proposals. So the views of specific senators about a lot of those proposals are just quiet background chatter. If you’re a senator up for reelection soon in a purple state, Manchin and the filibuster give you a lot of cover to not take tough votes on controversial bills.
Manchin is also clearly aware of the unique position he’s in. There has been some rumbling that he might use a party switch as leverage over Schumer, but that seems unlikely. Right now he has more power over policy than he ever has before. Becoming the 51st Republican senator diminishes that power (though it might facilitate his 2024 reelection bid). And, of course, his position means that he could emerge as a McCain-esque figure, casting the last, critical vote in support of some essential part of the Democratic agenda. We’ll see.
All of this could become moot in 2023. If Democrats gain a few seats in the Senate, they could be closer to tossing the filibuster — meaning that Manchin is no longer the central pivot point.
But even if that happens, our central thesis holds: Manchin would not have become a progressive champion. He’d just no longer be the left’s biggest headache.