In 2005, I gathered with my fellow West Virginia trial lawyers for our annual conference in Charleston, the state’s capital. After legal seminars, we headed for back rooms, where the gregarious group told stories, drank whiskey, and assessed the latest developments in state politics. That year, we couldn’t stop talking about our new governor, Joe Manchin, because, even though the group had supported his run, he was about to punch us in the face.
I’ve worked both against and with Manchin—first as a young trial lawyer, and later as the vice chair of the state Democratic Party. Together, those experiences allowed me to understand how he operates. Many now believe that the 50–50 Senate puts Manchin in an all-powerful position. Some have joked that his support will be so sought-after that the state will be the home of a new federal spaceport. Others fear that his conservative tendencies spell doom for the progressive agenda. The media are looking for clues in his every action as to what he thinks and how he’ll vote. But these analyses miss what drives Manchin.
The senator doesn’t have an overarching ideology like Bernie Sanders or Ron Paul does. He is not determined to bring home pork in the way that his predecessor, Robert Byrd, did. Manchin has skillfully managed his image, to stay viable in a state that went from a Democratic to a Republican majority. He has done that by having a keen sense of what issues and bills are popular at any given moment and of how he can be seen as being on the right side of those issues for the electorate—no matter which party is in favor of them.