Democrats are furious with Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., for announcing that he will oppose what he called their “partisan voting legislation” and that he will “not vote to weaken or eliminate the filibuster.” Rep. Mondaire Jones, D-N.Y., tweeted that Manchin was voting “to preserve Jim Crow,” while Rep. Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y., called Manchin “the new Mitch McConnell” who threatens to block Democrats’ entire agenda. Even President Joe Biden publicly laid into Manchin last week, declaring he can’t get more done because Manchin is one of “two members of the Senate who vote more with my Republican friends” (the other is Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, Democrat of Arizona).
Democrats should be careful; their Senate majority rests in Manchin’s hands. They need to decide: Do they want Manchin to be their party’s John McCain—a maverick who went his own way on issues but stayed within the party fold? Or do they want Manchin to become their party’s Jim Jeffords, who became the first senator in history to hand Senate control to the opposition by switching parties?
In May 2001, Jeffords announced he was leaving the GOP to caucus with the Democrats. Then, as now, the Senate was split 50-50—which meant his defection put Democrats into the majority. Do Democrats want Manchin to follow a similar path? Then keep right on attacking him.
In resisting their radical agenda, Manchin is simply representing his constituents. West Virginia is one of the reddest states in the country—so red that its Democratic governor, Jim Justice, switched parties in 2017. If Manchin chose to do the same, he would be welcomed by the Senate Republicans with open arms. Like Jeffords before him, he would be given a plum committee chairmanship. And he would still be the decisive swing vote in the Senate—except with Republicans in control, he would have even more influence than he does today in setting the agenda.
Instead of complaining that Manchin threatens their far-left policies, Democrats ought to recognize that voters did not give them a mandate to pursue so radical an agenda. They elected an evenly split Senate and gave Democrats a narrow majority in the House—one they are in danger of losing in 2022. The normal reaction to this outcome would be to follow Manchin’s advice, temper their demands and reach across the aisle. Instead, Democrats are acting like they won in a landslide, trying to ram through extreme partisan bills.
The fact is, Democrats need Manchin more than he needs them—not just to preserve their Senate majority, but also to stop their party from falling over a left-wing cliff. Some elected Democrats are quietly uncomfortable with the leftward lurch of their party, but they’re afraid to push back for fear of provoking a progressive primary challenge. Manchin provides them cover. For example, the Biden administration’s proposal to raise the corporate tax rate to 28% is opposed behind the scenes by multiple Democrats, including Sinema and Sens. Mark Warner (Virginia) and Jon Tester (Montana)—but Manchin takes all the heat. When Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., forced a vote on a $15 minimum wage—even though Manchin’s opposition made the vote moot—six Democrats and Angus King, I-Maine, joined Manchin in voting no. They much prefer it when his opposition stops such votes from ever taking place. Manchin serves as the lightning rod that attracts all the left-wing anger and allows other moderate Democrats the luxury of remaining silent—which is why they are silently grateful to have Manchin in their ranks.
So what might persuade him to defect to the GOP? The biggest obstacle might be Donald Trump’s popularity in West Virginia. Trump won the Mountain State by a nearly 70-30 margin in 2020, and Manchin voted to convict him in both of his impeachment trials. Republicans would have to convince Manchin that handing Senate control to the GOP would absolve him of that sin. House Republicans’ decision to remove Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., from leadership, and Trump’s promise to defeat disloyal Republicans, doesn’t help. Manchin would need to be convinced that he has a better chance of getting reelected in 2024 as a Republican.
Until Republicans can do so, he’s likely to remain a Democratic maverick. And Democrats should be grateful if he does. The more they make Manchin feel unwelcome, the more likely it is he will follow in Jeffords’ footsteps.