Joe Manchin, West Virginia Democrat, makes the easiest of villains. A senator and former governor, he is wholly beholden to the fossil-fuel industry, Big Pharma, and just about every pernicious lobby imaginable. Manchin has been credibly accused of coddling right-wing Republicans and killing efforts to save America’s fragile democracy.
His latest move — to reject Democratic proposals to raise taxes on the wealthy and plow hundreds of billions into the existential fight against climate change — rightfully enrages much of the left. Fellow Democratic senators are fed up. Calling Manchin’s position “infuriating,” Tina Smith, an otherwise understated Democratic senator from Minnesota, charged that the “world is literally burning up while he joins every single Republican to stop strong action” on climate change. House Democrats, especially those in the party’s progressive wing, are apoplectic.
Manchin left the door open to further negotiations on a reconciliation package, claiming he wants to see if inflation worsens in the next months. After voting for a $1.9 trillion package last year, Manchin is leery of any new spending, even though tax hikes on the very rich would be a deflationary tactic. Manchin would rather not anger his moneyed donors.
Yet the rage at the West Virginia senator is ultimately misplaced because Democrats can do no better than him. When he retires or loses a reelection bid, a Democrat may not represent West Virginia for another generation. Manchin’s Democratic label has done more good than harm for the party because it can only get worse from here. Manchin is the last prominent Democrat in a state Donald Trump carried by almost 40 points. No one in his stead would have voted to confirm Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court, as Manchin did earlier in the year. And Democrats of all ideological stripes must come to understand they have, quite literally, no leverage over him. Were Manchin even more venal, he could switch his party registration tomorrow and prolong his political career into the 2030s. Jim Justice, West Virginia’s governor, was initially elected as a Democrat and did just that. Were he not term-limited, he could preside over the state indefinitely as a Republican.
What makes Manchin a lousy senator is his utter inability to deliver for West Virginia. His remarkable leverage in the Senate has not been used to deliver generation-defining funding for a desperately poor and environmentally ravaged population. A different kind of senator, even a so-called centrist, could hold Chuck Schumer and the rest of the Democrats hostage for a New Deal for West Virginia, revitalizing the state with green manufacturing jobs and sweeping anti-poverty programs. Manchin has no interest in that sort of legacy.
His clout, however, is a greater reminder of Democratic failure. It didn’t have to be this way. The 50-50 Senate could have been a 51-49 Democratic Senate or even 52-48. In the last two election cycles, Democrats lost winnable races with flawed candidates or struggled, in the case of Bill Nelson of Florida, to defend an incumbent in a blue-wave year. Manchin agita is better reserved for the disastrous campaign of Sara Gideon, the Maine Democrat who spent more than $63 million to lose to Susan Collins and still had almost $15 million left in her account after the election. Gideon’s 2020 loss was galling because Joe Biden ran strongly in Maine, beating Trump 53 to 44 percent. Collins, a moderate Republican, was one of the few candidates anywhere to manage an effective ticket-splitting bid, winning over many Biden voters. Gideon’s uninspiring and overtly nationalized campaign was an ill fit for Maine, emblematic of all the ways Democrats in D.C. have failed to connect in rural America.
Beyond Maine, Democrats’ missed opportunities in Florida and North Carolina will probably haunt them for years to come. While Florida has become, since 2020, a foreboding state for left-of-center candidates, 2018 was a rare opportunity for Democrats to at least defend their gains. As Republican Ron DeSantis very narrowly defeated Andrew Gillum, Florida senator Bill Nelson fell to Governor Rick Scott, a GOP arch-conservative. Nelson lost by just 10,033 votes, an absurdly close margin. The Nelson and Gillum losses were, in retrospect, deeply dispiriting for Democrats because they came during a backlash wave against the Trump White House when hopes were so high for Democratic dominance. Democrats did flip the House that year, but the Florida defeats have proved to be just as significant. Nelson’s presence in the Senate would have diminished Manchin’s influence; he behaved more like a conventional Democrat.
Unlike Maine, North Carolina was not a Biden state in 2020: Trump won it by just a single percentage point. A strong Democratic contender, however, could have run ahead of the presidential ticket and won a slim victory. Roy Cooper, North Carolina’s Democratic governor, accomplished this twice. But the national Democrats’ choice of Cal Cunningham, a moderate former state senator, to take on Republican Thom Tillis would backfire when news of an extramarital affair broke shortly before Election Day. The affair, though, did not doom Tillis alone. The Cunningham campaign was a milquetoast, insipid endeavor, offering little in the way of a compelling policy or vision. Had Schumer and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee been more encouraging to a young, energetic state senator named Jeff Jackson, it’s possible Democrats would be holding the seat today.
None of this should spare Manchin criticism. Rather, it’s a reminder for activists and ordinary Democratic voters that one senator from West Virginia does not encompass all that is wrong with the party. In 2024, Manchin may seek another term with Trump at the top of the ticket. As a Democrat running in a state his party is bound to lose in a landslide, his career will probably end, with another conservative Republican sliding in to replace him. This Republican Manchin successor, voting with hardline conservatives on every issue of consequence, will not be so infamous — yet will play an even more devastating role for any kind of progressive agenda. That is how the saga of Joe Manchin comes to a close.