As the drama with intra-Democratic negotiations over the Build Back Better budget reconciliation bill intensifies even more, a report involving one of the story’s central figures is bound to get a lot of attention. Veteran Mother Jones reporter David Corn is hearing talk from Joe Manchin’s “associates” that he is mulling a party switch, which he will execute if and when he becomes definitively dissatisfied with his influence over his fellow Democrats. The report was very specific:
He told associates that he has a two-step plan for exiting the party. First, he would send a letter to Sen. Chuck Schumer, the top Senate Democrat, removing himself from the Democratic leadership of the Senate. (He is vice chair of the Senate Democrats’ policy and communications committee.) Manchin hopes that would send a signal. He would then wait and see if that move had any impact on the negotiations. After about a week, he said, he would change his voter registration from Democrat to independent.
The timing of this news makes it immediately suspect, and Manchin himself quickly brushed it aside:
Subsequently Manchin offered a parallel if somewhat different take on this story:
The idea here is that Manchin would change his party designation while otherwise continuing as a heterodox member of the Democratic Conference, presumably to lower the heat on Biden and Schumer to subject the West Virginian to some sort of party discipline.
The transparent motive for Manchin to put out either version of the party-switch story is, of course, to remind Democrats in general and progressives in particular that he can not only deny them his vote for the reconciliation bill but can threaten or even deny them control of the Senate. In other words: He’s not just one among many senators claiming leverage over this most consequential piece of legislation, but the Big One, if only because he’s willing to walk away from his party entirely if his demands aren’t met. So it’s a power play, not an actual threat — at this point, at least.
But as Corn points out, it’s not like Manchin doesn’t have reasons beyond the immediate negotiations to consider taking off the Donkey Ears:
Manchin has repeatedly said he has a significant philosophical difference with most of his fellow Democrats. He has told reporters that he believes major programs in the Build Back Better bill would move the United States toward an “entitlement mentality” and that he cannot accept that. In a recent meeting with Biden, Manchin told the president that he sees government as a partner with the public, not the ultimate provider, according to people who heard the senator’s account of the conversation.
The big reason for Manchin getting happy feet is even more basic: He represents what has become one of the most Republican states in the country at a time when ticket-splitting is increasingly rare. If he wants to win another term in the presidential year of 2024, he should do so as a Republican.
On the other hand, Manchin will be 77 years old that year, and he would have as many differences of opinions with his peers as a “moderate Republican” as he currently has as a “moderate Democrat.” Just as importantly, he is currently ensconced as the chairman of the Energy Committee, a position considered very valuable to West Virginia interests, and it’s not at all clear he could extort an equally key gig from the GOP. Additionally, Manchin is reputed to strongly dislike Mitch McConnell, who once said of the West Virginian that he would “crush him like a grape” in his last reelection year of 2018.
So the odds are Manchin will cut the best deal he can on reconciliation, and hope Democrats hang onto the Senate in 2022 so he can keep his chairmanship along with never-exhausted leverage over Joe Biden and other Democrats. He may or may not renew his offer to formally become an independent. At some point, though, threats to switch parties have to be taken to the next level or they lose their intended effect. So maybe he’ll weigh his options after the midterms, which he could still do if he’s formally an independent. That label would reflect where he actually is in the Senate right now.