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The latest in the Joe Manchin party-switch saga

Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Mitt Romney (R-Utah) head to a vote on March 30. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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It’s a subject that hasn’t gone away and apparently won’t anytime soon: whether Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) might one day switch parties.

The latest entry in the saga comes via a new book from the New York Times’s Alexander Burns and Jonathan Martin. The two report that Manchin had dinner with some Senate Republicans in early 2021 and responded to their entreaties that he join them by suggesting he might indeed do it — if not for Mitch McConnell.

Per the book:

You don’t have to join our caucus, [Senate No. 2 John] Thune told him. Just become an independent and caucus with us.
Thune suggested Manchin would likely be rewarded for taking such a step: You could write your own ticket, the South Dakotan told him. Chair a committee, we’ll help you raise money for your campaign.
Manchin heard them out and gave Thune a politically deft response.
John, he said, if you were the leader I would do it.
It was not a hard no, but Manchin was not about to put Mitch McConnell back in charge of the Senate.

Manchin has now responded to the report, suggesting that his response was more lighthearted than it appears on the page.

“Not that I can remem-” Manchin told CNN’s Morgan Rimmer, before shifting course: “No, we talk all the time, we have dinners together and all that. No, they’re always kidding back and forth.”

Thune also suggested the exchange wasn’t quite so serious, saying he took Manchin’s comment in “good humor”: “A lot of those are obviously light-spirited conversations.”

The thing is: That could ring true if you visualize the scene and put yourself in it. You’ve got a bunch of GOP senators who would very much like Manchin to actually switch parties — because it would flip the 50-50 Senate back into their control — but who also know it’s probably a long shot for the very same reason. So you feel it out by talking about things in a perhaps lighthearted way, and Manchin offers a kind of vaguely noncommittal, lighthearted response — using it to flatter someone he genuinely likes. (“John Thune is the most decent human being, a good friend of mine,” Manchin added Thursday.)

Even that, though, should probably make Democrats a little wary. This has come up repeatedly for a reason, and we keep learning Manchin has perhaps entertained this a little more earnestly than some would like — or at least not shut it down completely.

Back in October, Mother Jones reported that Manchin was telling associates he was considering becoming “American Independent” if Democrats didn’t shrink their $3.5 trillion spending bill roughly in half. In response to the report, Manchin offered some colorful words essentially calling it nonsense. “I have no control of rumors, guys,” he said. “No control of rumors.”

But the next day, Manchin confirmed that he had in fact discussed becoming an independent — in his telling, to actually help Democrats. He said he offered to do so but still caucus with Democrats if his status as a moderate West Virginia Democrat was causing problems for his party.

By December, people close to Manchin were telling Axios that if he did switch parties, it would more likely be to become a Democratic-caucusing independent than to become a Republican.

What the new book confirms is that Manchin is happy to hear this out, and he’s not exactly offering a flat “no” — which, if you’re him, is 100 percent the right political approach. Manchin would be silly not to entertain this in some way, because it gives him leverage over a party whose activists have tried to turn him into Public Enemy No. 1 in thwarting President Biden’s and the left’s agenda. (Those people would do well to understand how much they need Manchin, rather than vice versa.) In this position, the prospect of being rewarded by his new party might be appealing — not to say difficult, and perhaps unwise, to definitively shut down. And the ability to switch parties also gives him a path forward if he starts to worry about losing reelection as a Democrat in a state that went for Donald Trump by nearly 40 points.

In some ways, what Manchin says today is immaterial. Until it were to happen or get very close, he’s not going to come out and say, “Yeah, I’m seriously thinking about this.”

Back in March 2009, Democrats were employing the full-court press to get Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) to switch to their side, given the threat he faced in his upcoming primary. But Specter said he would run as a Republican, and former Democratic Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell — somewhat akin to Thune today — suggested Specter wasn’t really into prospect of switching; he said the senator was “bound and determined to stay a Republican.” Specter himself told me at the time that about the only last resort he could imagine was becoming an independent who still caucused with Republicans. When I wrote about that, his office was aghast that I had treated even that watered-down party switch as a serious possibility.

A little more than a month later, Specter was a Democrat.

The moment you say you’re really thinking about it, you’re probably about to do it. Certainly that was the case with James M. Jeffords in 2001.

If Democrats can find some solace in this book passage, it’s this: It suggests that, to the extent Manchin has treated this choice seriously, it’s less likely with McConnell in charge. And there’s no sign, for now, that McConnell won’t be in charge of the GOP for the foreseeable future. But that dynamic could change if and when Manchin wouldn’t be in the position of handing McConnell the majority by making the jump — such as if Republicans retake the Senate in November.

Regardless, Manchin’s in the driver’s seat, as he well knows.