Joe Manchin Was Never a Mystery

It’s always been pretty obvious who he is: a middle-of-the-road guy with good electoral instincts, decent intentions, and bad ideas.

A photo illustration of Joe Manchin
Tom Williams / Getty; The Atlantic

The failure of the For the People Act in the Senate yesterday evening didn’t provide much drama. All 50 Democrats backed the voting-rights bill, but with no Republican support, they didn’t have enough votes to break a filibuster. That Democrats didn’t have the votes was clear from the start of the Congress.

But journalism requires drama, which means that over the past few months Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia has been the subject of extensive coverage. The problem with this coverage is not that Manchin is unimportant; as the most moderate Democrat in a 50-person caucus, he is crucial. It’s that there is no mystery to him.

Trying to figure out who Manchin is and what he wants, or how he’s changed—the natural and reasonable defaults of political-profile writing—assumes there’s something more than meets the eye. Really, though, Manchin is who he’s always been: a middle-of-the-road guy with good electoral instincts, decent intentions, and bad ideas.

Manchin made the bill’s fate explicit on June 6, when he published a column in the Charleston Gazette-Mail announcing he’d vote nay, and would also not vote to weaken the filibuster. Given Democrats’ thin margin, that meant they would be unable to overcome a Republican filibuster, even after Manchin announced yesterday afternoon that he would vote to open debate on the bill. (Some other Democrats reportedly privately opposed parts of the bill, meaning it might have failed eventually even if there were no filibuster too.)

“Nobody who knows Manchin well was surprised by his decision,” The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos writes in one of the latest and deepest pieces on the senator. But nobody following national politics at all should have been surprised by his decision, either. Manchin has said all along—though not always clearly—that he doesn’t want to eliminate the filibuster. His tendency to speak off the cuff to reporters and colleagues means that Manchin sometimes muddies the waters and creates openings for progressives to project their own hopes onto him.

At one point in March, he seemed to go through several different visions of tweaks to the filibuster in the course of barely a week. On March 1, he snapped at reporters who asked him under what circumstances he’d agree to lower the filibuster: “Jesus Christ! What don’t you understand about ‘never’?” Six days later, he said he’d be fine with using reconciliation—which allows fiscal-related legislation to pass with a bare minority—if Republicans had a chance to weigh in first. He also suggested he’d be open to the “talking filibuster,” a tweak to the rule. But when a reporter quizzed him on that the next day, he recoiled. “Jiminy Christmas, buddy!” he said. “That’s why I even hate to say anything to you.”

Reporters and pundits engaged in a frenzied hermeneutic quest to decode what Manchin wanted and what he’d allow. But trying to make sense of it all was a waste of time. The important thing was he was against nuking the filibuster then, and he is now.

Read a few Manchin profiles and you start to become familiar with the tropes: the houseboat. The ever-ringing cellphone, with a number the senator hands out prolifically. The high-school-football heroics.

But searching for a Rosebud to explain his mentality will get you nowhere. Manchin is not the first senator to hold a high-profile swing vote, but the path by which he arrived here is not so interesting as that of some of his predecessors. He doesn’t bring the elaborate psychological baggage to the role that John McCain did: the weight of paternal expectation, the time as a POW, the Keating Five mess, the 2008 presidential loss, the animosity with Donald Trump. Manchin seems chummy, if not close, with President Joe Biden.

He doesn’t bring the political baggage, either. While Manchin is more conservative than other Democrats, he is still more in line with the rest of his party than, say, Jim Jeffords was before he left the GOP to become a Democrat in 2001. Unlike Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema, the other super-swingy Senate Democrat and an enigmatic politician with an erratic ideological history, Manchin has kept the same basic approach for most of his career.

He works hard. He believes in moderation and bipartisanship for their own sake. As Christopher J. Regan, a fellow West Virginia Democrat, wrote in The Atlantic this spring, Manchin brings “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.”

Manchin’s recent support for many of the voting-rights reforms that Democrats want—but not all of them, as well as some changes that might appeal to Republicans, including a national voter-ID requirement—is a perfect embodiment of this. A voter-ID requirement is bad policy, because it solves a problem, in-person voter fraud, that doesn’t exist. It is also relatively harmless; though many such laws are transparently designed to target minority voters, multiple studies have found relatively little effect on turnout, making it a good exchange for the other reforms. Moreover, it is wildly popular with voters.

Sinema (like McCain, whom she revered) seems to relish the status that being the 49th or 50th vote gives her. Manchin says he does not. If he just wanted power, he could get more by agreeing to kill the filibuster and become the deciding vote on everything. Instead, he has forsworn that power in his quest for bipartisanship.

That is where the trouble comes in. Manchin hasn’t changed, but both the Democratic and Republican Parties have. Manchin’s own party has moved left, which leaves him more isolated. The change in the GOP, by contrast, is more drastic, with Republicans now coalescing around antidemocratic (with a small d) tendencies.

Manchin professes to back both ballot access and bipartisanship. These two impulses may have been reconcilable at one time, but they are not today, as my colleague Adam Serwer writes: “If the right to vote is fundamental, then it cannot be subject to veto by partisans who benefit from disenfranchisement.” Manchin’s own voter-ID proposal illustrated the futility of his quest for bipartisanship. The idea annoyed some Democrats, though they bit their tongue and agreed—but it didn’t win the support of a single Republican.

The most illuminating profile to read about Manchin today was published three years ago, in GQ. The journalist Jason Zengerle recounted the story of Manchin doggedly tracking down a GOP senator to kill Manchin’s own amendment to a bill, as a favor to Johnny Isakson, a Georgia Republican, so the ailing Isakson didn’t have to come to the floor. In return for Manchin’s trouble, Isakson donated to Manchin’s Republican challenger in the 2018 race.

Looked at one way, in 2021, the joke in this anecdote is on the Republicans: Manchin survived the 2018 race, and Isakson’s old seat is now held by the Democrat Raphael Warnock. But what’s the point of holding these Senate seats and their power if not to enact Democratic Party priorities? Manchin hasn’t figured that out yet, which means the Democrats won’t have a chance to do so either.