Is This Trump-Friendly Democratic Senator Fooling Republicans — or Himself?

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Is it serious? Photo: Kena Betancur/AFP/Getty Images

Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia is a Democrat that Republicans look at with an odd combination of friendly and malicious feelings. They’d love his support to give the GOP’s current right-wing agenda the patina of bipartisanship. But what they’d like even more is to take away his seat in 2018.

So as Manchin and Republicans in Congress and in the White House continue to make billing and cooing noises at each other on Obamacare and other subjects, there’s unquestionably some unsentimental maneuvering underway, on both sides. Can Republicans make use of Manchin’s vulnerable position back home as a Democrat in a state that went for Donald Trump last November by a shocking 68–26 margin? Or can Manchin use bipartisan gestures to strengthen his position back home without doing a lot that materially helps the GOP reach its objectives?

Late last year, the former West Virginia governor took the latter fork in the road twice, playing with — before finally rejecting — overtures to change parties and to join the Trump administration as secretary of Energy. In the new year he’s kept to the same pattern: He accepted an invitation to join Chuck Schumer’s Democratic leadership team in the Senate — but he refused to attend a Democrats-only Senate meeting with outgoing President Obama. And he joined other Democrats in a party-line vote against the budget resolution that represented the first step toward the repeal of the Affordable Care Act (a law passed before he entered the Senate, but that he subsequently claimed he would have opposed). At about the same time he was publicly talking about helping the GOP enact an Obamacare replacement plan that would require eight Democratic votes — but was framing that offer as an effort to preserve what’s good about the existing system.

So far, in other words, Manchin has given Republicans no more than lip service. And perhaps his plan is to keep it that way. After all, he can talk all day long about helping with an Obamacare replacement plan so long as an insufficient number of Democratic colleagues join him to make that a real option. And being “open” to this or that theoretical bipartisan initiative doesn’t sacrifice his ability to sadly deem GOP initiatives (some of which won’t poll well back home) inadequate and vote against them just like Bernie Sanders. His role model could well be former senator Olympia Snowe, the Republican moderate who drove the Obama administration crazy with hints and feints about her interest in finding a way to vote for the Affordable Care Act — before voting against it like every other Republican, having “banked” the impression that she was not a stone partisan like her colleagues.

Now if Republicans really wanted to make Manchin a reliable dance partner they’d call off the dogs in West Virginia and give him a more manageable reelection contest in 2018. But there are at least two U.S. House members and a statewide elected official eyeing his seat with bad intent. His approval-rating numbers from his constituents have been pretty solid, and West Virginia, where Jim Justice held on to the governor’s office for Democrats in November despite the Trump landslide, may be the last redoubt of ticket-splitters.

What Manchin must avoid is the fate of Joe Lieberman, who during the George W. Bush administration found himself (in an apt description by Jeffrey Toobin) “serving simultaneously as a punching bag and a cheerleader for the Bush White House.” So he may soon have to pick sides and live with the consequences.

Is Trump-Friendly Dem Senator Fooling GOP — or Himself?