The Mercury News Weekend

Why Joe Manchin is good for the Democratic party

- By Doyle McManus Doyle McManus is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times.

Sen. Joe Manchin, the self-styled conservati­ve Democrat from West Virginia, is driving progressiv­es crazy, and he doesn’t seem to mind.

Manchin said President Joe Biden’s $1.9-trillion COVID-19 relief bill is too big. He said he strongly opposes a $15 federal minimum wage. He announced last week that he won’t vote to confirm Biden’s nominee to head the Office of Management and Budget, Neera Tanden. He hasn’t decided whether to support Biden’s choice for Interior secretary, Deb Haaland.

His refusal to back Tanden, an Indian American, and Haaland, a Native American, drew fury from progressiv­es, who pointed out that both are women of color.

But the Senate’s Democratic leaders are staying out of the fray, giving Manchin a great deal of deference for a simple, practical reason: He’s their 50th vote.

Manchin is an unusual character in the increasing­ly polarized Senate: A Democrat who voted in favor of Trump’s position on legislatio­n more than half the time and who seeks to split almost every issue down the middle.

He’s a throwback to the age when Southern Democrats became power brokers precisely because their votes were unpredicta­ble.

“This place doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to anymore,” Manchin told me in December, referring to the Senate. “We’re generally disgusted with not getting anything done.”

He has urged Biden to build bipartisan coalitions with Republican­s

“Let me know what you’d like to accomplish, and I can help,” he said, quoting one of his conversati­ons with the president.

He’s disappoint­ed that Biden, in pursuit of quick passage for his COVID-19 relief bill, has largely ignored his advice.

It’s hard to avoid the impression that Manchin enjoys being the man in the middle.

But his split-the-difference positions also reflect who he is and where he’s from: A culturally conservati­ve, anti-abortion, probusines­s Democrat from a poor coal state.

His greatest passion is making sure West Virginia gets as much federal spending as possible.

In pursuit of that goal, he has been willing to evolve.

Long a dogged defender of coal mining — as governor of West Virginia, he sued the Environmen­tal Protection Agency over its ban on mountainto­p removal — he has seemingly come to accept that coal jobs will never come back and now focuses on attracting clean energy jobs.

His success at that kind of old-fashioned politics is what has enabled him to keep his Senate seat for 10 years, during which West Virginia, like other rural states, has turned solidly Republican.

In 2016, Donald Trump won West Virginia by a 42 percentage-point margin, the second-largest of any state (Wyoming came in first). In 2020, Trump won the state by 39 points.

Running against that red tide, Manchin won reelection in 2018 by only 3 percentage points. No other Democrat won statewide office in West Virginia that year.

And that’s why Joe Manchin isn’t the Democrats’ problem; he’s part of their solution.

He’s an example of how Democrats can win Senate seats in states where they need to begin winning again: in rural states that, thanks to the Constituti­on, hold a share of seats in the Senate wildly disproport­ionate to their population­s.

The 25 most rural states elect 50 of the Senate’s 100 members, and 40 of those 50 are currently Republican­s.

“For Democrats to build a sustainabl­e governing majority, you can’t do that as a bunch of large blue islands surrounded by an ocean of red,” said David Axelrod, the former adviser to then-President Barack Obama. “That’s not going to work.”

To solve their 50-50 problem in the Senate, Democrats need to compete more effectivel­y in states such as Iowa, Montana and Alaska, places they hoped to win in 2020 but lost.

That means recruiting and supporting candidates attuned to the problems of farmers, ranchers and miners: rural populists, not urban progressiv­es.

What they need, like it or not, is more Joe Manchins.

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