But Manchin’s position is not terribly surprising — especially when you consider he comes from a state that went for Donald Trump by nearly 40 points, Trump’s second-biggest win nationwide.
On Wednesday, this led to a place we might have expected: Talk of a Manchin party switch broke into the open. Mother Jones’s David Corn reported that Manchin has said that he is considering leaving the party and becoming an “American Independent” if Democrats don’t cut their $3.5 trillion bill roughly in half.
Manchin has denied this, comparing the report to bovine excrement. And the report broke even as the specific threat enunciated suddenly appeared moot; Biden told Democrats the day before that they should cut a deal between $1.75 trillion and $1.9 trillion — right in the ballpark of what Manchin reportedly demanded.
But it’s a prospect that has always loomed in the background, given Manchin’s unique position as a Democrat elected in one of the reddest states. And it’s one he is probably not terribly sad to see suddenly talked about more earnestly. That’s because it reinforces the leverage he has over those who would try to pressure him to fall in line.
Update: Manchin now says he has indeed discussed becoming an independent — but that it was an offer he made to avoid being an “embarrassment” to Democrats. He also said he would have continued caucusing with them.
We’ve already seen something like this play out. In 2001, Sen. Jim Jeffords (Vt.), a Republican in a blue state, left the GOP to become an independent who caucused with Democrats, switching control of the chamber. Given the current 50-50 Senate — and the fact that Manchin is probably one of the few senators who could pull off a party switch and live to tell the political tale — it’s something that should rightly frighten Democrats, however real the idea currently is.
That said, it’s not nearly so simple as Manchin shedding a party label that has fallen overwhelmingly out of favor in his state. There are reasons, after all, that Manchin has not quit the Democratic Party even though it seemingly made lots of sense to do so — or even become a Republican.
The biggest one right now is that however much Manchin doesn’t like being attacked by the liberals in his party, his current position provides him enormous power.
He’s the chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee — a key post for a senator from a coal-reliant state and one that gives him huge sway as the rest of the party moves toward greener energy sources.
He’s also a — and often the — crucial vote on pretty much everything that has a chance of passage these days. It’s not clear that Manchin would even stop caucusing with the Democrats if he were to become an independent, but right now he’s in a position to effectively decide the majority’s agenda. Handing control of the Senate to Republicans would keep Manchin as a pivotal vote but without a House majority or a president of his own party to actually get things done.
(It also bears noting that Manchin could have easily joined the GOP when it had the trifecta of the House, Senate and presidency during Trump’s first two years in office — and ahead of Manchin’s 2018 reelection bid — but didn’t.)
There’s also what it would mean for his future in office. Manchin’s 2018 race was his closest; he beat the Republican state attorney general by three percentage points. Given that Manchin is an institution in the state as a popular former governor, the fact that he came so close to losing would suggest that his party label is quite the liability should he run again.
But becoming an independent or even a Republican would carry plenty of uncertainty, too. Other Republicans would surely have more conservative records in a primary campaign. As an independent, he could also split the non-GOP vote with a more liberal Democrat. (He easily turned aside a Sanders-aligned primary challenger in 2018, and it’s not clear Democrats would seriously contest the race. But that challenger still took 30 percent of the vote, and you can bet that certain portions of the party would push for retribution in 2024 after his party switch.)
Manchin has at least professed to have little concern for his political future. The 74-year-old senator even said his 2018 Senate run would be his last, before tempering that statement this summer.
The most obvious reason for changing his mind would seem to be that he has more influence over the course of Washington than he ever has. A longtime aide told Politico of the possibility Manchin might run again, “The Senate is finally working the way Joe Manchin has always wanted it to work.” And even in the course of being pilloried by the left for his refusal to nix the filibuster, he made an argument that the “right candidate” could keep his seat blue even in what’s likely to be a very tough election in 2024.
All of which suggests Manchin has plenty of reasons and motivation to remain in the party’s fold. But everyone has their breaking point. And as much as some Democrats don’t want to hear it, they have little business relying upon a vote from West Virginia for their agenda. There is understandable frustration over Manchin’s refusal to go along with certain aspects of it, but lamenting that or wishing it away doesn’t change the political realities involved. Manchin is a highly unusual figure in American political history, at the same time wielding huge power and being largely unbeholden to his party.
There’s also the fact that Manchin could be a key vote for months or even years to come — perhaps, say, if there were to be a Supreme Court vacancy. Even shy of a party switch, alienating him comes with potential costs. That’s not to say the current spending bill is unimportant, but there’s also a long game to be played.
In other words: Regardless of the seriousness of the party-switch question, it epitomizes how this is a guy who holds the cards in that relationship, whether certain people want to believe it or not.