A fictitious 16th-century knight-errant and a 21st-century politician have quite a bit in common.
The first part of Don Quixote in the 21st century has already been written. Its cast of characters were in the Republican Party. America experienced the ultimate Don who fought imaginary foes ranging from Kenyan-born presidents, murderous caravans coming to the US southern border, and a deep state intent on defeating the aggrieved Queens man. Republicans first belittled Trump’s delusions, but then accommodated him, beseeched his approval, and even partook in his fights, culminating in one of the gravest windmill attacks at the US Capitol.
America is still waiting to see if there’ll be a Part 2 or not to his tale.
In the meantime, Democrats holding unified control of government for the first time since 2010 have an opportunity to write their own quixotic tale. The legislative agenda rests on getting all 50 Democratic senators on board. It’s central character is someone that even Don Quixote’s wildest delusions would not have conjured up…a Democratic senator in West Virginia in 2021. Senator Joe Manchin is just that.
The Charleston Knight
The knight-errant from Charleston has an interesting story line. Just his presence in the Senate today seems hard to fathom.
There Once Lived a Democrat In a Village I Won’t Name
Miguel de Cervantes did not care to remember La Mancha and progressives feel the same way about West Virginia. A West Virginia Democrat is something you’d expect to read in the history books or tales of chivalry, a bygone relic like an Abe Lincoln Republican. Yet, every American adult was around when Democrats ruled the Mountain State. When Manchin first won statewide office in 2000 as secretary of state, the Democratic Party was the dominant political party in West Virginia politics. From 2001 through 2014, Democrats would hold a trifecta of control of the governor’s mansion, including Manchin for five years, and both chambers of the state legislature.
But the nationalization of politics would seep into West Virginia politics and dramatically change the state’s political makeup. In the span of just two decades, West Virginia would go from voting for President Bill Clinton in 1996 by 15 points, to giving less support to Hillary Clinton in 2016 and Joe Biden in 2020 than they gave to General George McClellan in his race against against President Lincoln in 1864.
Why did West Virginians quickly come to view the Democrats of today worse than the Civil War defeatists from 157 years ago? The state has the largest share by far of white working class voters (75 percent) in the nation. This was once the bread and butter of the Democratic coalition. Big federal spending and cultural conservatism created towering figures like Senator Robert Byrd, the man Manchin succeeded, whose gift as a Democratic leader and appropriator was to funnel federal dollars in projects and anti-poverty aid to the state.
But party identification is increasingly sorted by education, with Democrats moving away from the cultural ethos of the working class. Then there’s the Democratic embrace of environmentalism and environmental regulations that made the “war on coal” a potent political weapon against a party in a state whose economy and identity revolved around that natural resource. Suffice to say, “progressivism” is far dirtier than coal emissions in the minds of West Virginians.
An Invincible Knight-Errant Dedicated to Lady Byrd and Tales of Bipartisan Past
Over the last decade, Democratic knights in less ruby red states than West Virginia have been vanquished. That includes Mary Landrieu in Louisiana, Bill Nelson in Florida, and Claire McCaskill in Missouri. Yet, Joe Manchin is still around. What’s his secret?
- West Virginians tend to stick with their incumbents. The last time a West Virginian senator lost reelection was in 1958. Senator Jay Rockefeller was around for 30 years before retiring in 2015 and Senator Robert Byrd was the longest serving senator ever, working in the upper chamber for over 51 years up until his death in 2010. The Mountain State takes serious who they elect. It’s partially because even a red state like West Virginia expects its senators to perform. The state receives $2.15 in federal spending for every dollar in federal taxes paid, the third highest in the nation. Both Manchin and Republican Shelley Moore Capito hold plum spots on the Senate Appropriations Committee. Manchin heads up the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and Capito is the ranking member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. These are all perches of power to deliver for West Virginia in some fashion.
- Joe Manchin knows how to cultivate the Joe Manchin image. Manchin likes to talk to reporters. A lot. He embraces theatrics to emphasize the conservative in being a conservative Democrat. He’s the Senate Democrat who most often votes against his party’s majority. But Manchin never forgets that he’s a Democrat. Even at the height of his dissent, Manchin has voted with the majority of Senate Democrats over 70 percent of the time. There’s plenty of Democratic economic policies that play well in culturally conservative West Virginia. When the pandemic and the economic fallout had been top of mind for voters, there was never any real doubt that Manchin would not support a major pandemic and economic rescue package that had 60–70 percent support among the public, is popular with lower-income Republicans (a major West Virginia demographic), and would provide the greatest support to the poorest Americans.
Who knows if Manchin, 73, will run for reelection in 2024 (my gut says he won’t). He’s one of those senators who looks into the mirror and sees a future president. But no lane ever emerged for Manchin to run for president in the increasingly progressive Democratic Party.
Still, Joe Manchin believes in Joe Manchin-ism and sees the 50–50 Senate as the perfect moment to enhance his brand. Manchin-ism seems to be as much about process as it is about policy. He wants to return to a time of regular order. It’s a process where power rests more with the rank-and-file and committee chairs than it does with party leadership. It’s why he’s adamant he will “defend the legacy of Robert C. Byrd” and not let the budget reconciliation process and the Senate Byrd Rule be further bent in the name of passing “too-big-to-fail” partisan bills.
Manchin also wants greater bipartisanship. He’s a kindred spirit with Senator Susan Collins, a fellow appropriator and institutionalist from the rural state of Maine who is the last of the New England Republicans in Congress. He has successfully worked with Alaska’s Senator Lisa Murkowski, another rural state appropriator and institutionalist, on clean energy legislation.
But above all else, Manchin wants to be relevant. Regular order and bipartisanship provide points of input and influence for himself that leadership-driven legislation otherwise wouldn’t. He can use a “process” argument to defeat a progressive policy proposals like The For the People Act, gun control, or immigration reform. However, a 50–50 Senate does provide an opportunity for Manchin to exert leverage. Can Manchin get more out of being the 50th out of 50 votes in a budget reconciliation bill or being the 50th out of 60 votes in a regular order bill that can overcome the filibuster?
The American Families Plan
When President Biden unveiled his American Families Plan (AFP) last week, a $1.8 trillion plan for human infrastructure, he called it a “once-in-a-generation” investment. He meant that literally. Over the last 20 years, Democrats had unified control of government for just two years (2009–2010). Democrats know that short window of unified control may be the same for the next 20 years.
For hardened partisans like Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, Plan A (even if it’s not publicly stated this way) is to roll Republicans and pass as much as they can of the AFP, the American Jobs Plan (AJP), and other progressive policies (e.g. drug pricing) through one mega, too-big-to-fail budget reconciliation bill this year. It’s much easier negotiating amongst Democrats than with Republicans who, besides being miles apart ideologically, have their eyes on winning back the majority in 2022.
However, Pelosi and Schumer have not publicly landed on a legislative path forward. They don’t have the votes to roll Republicans just yet. There may be some avenues for bipartisan agreement, particularly on aspects of the AJP. This includes water infrastructure, China/R&D/semiconductors, and some surface transportation. There’s no Plan B with the AFP. Democrats either pass it via reconciliation or they don’t pass it at all. There’s little middle ground to get sufficient Republican support.
So with the AFP, it really comes down to Manchin. There will be plenty of haggling and negotiating amongst Democrats on the scope and size — “what’s politically popular” is a much different question from “what’s politically feasible.” But they need Manchin to give the green light to go the reconciliation route. Doing so is at once a defeat of the Manchin-ism of regular order and bipartisanship and at the same time a triumph of the Manchin-ism of Manchin being able to leverage his vote.
When asked about about the $4+ trillion in spending Biden proposed in the AFP and AJP, Manchin last week said, “That makes you very uncomfortable, you want to find how you’re going to pay for it. Are we going to be able to be competitive and pay for what we need in the country? And we got to figure out what our needs are and maybe make some adjustments, who knows.” But it’s hard to take what Manchin says too literally. Earlier in the year, Manchin endorsed as much as $4 trillion in infrastructure spending.
How do Democratic leaders get Manchin to say yes to another round of reconciliation? National Democrats have little leverage over Manchin in West Virginia politics, so the strategy seems to be using the carrot over the stick. It’s indulging Manchin’s quixotism for his romantic views of governing in a bygone era. At the same time, Democrats need to make sure their new definition of “bipartisan” holds for AFP legislation. That means getting support from some Republican and independent voters even if Republican lawmakers in Congress are opposed. There will then come a point in time, perhaps as early as this month, when Democratic leadership pivots to reconciliation. Time will tell whether the man who is el Manchin will pivot with them.