What the Media Are Missing About Joe Manchin

What the Media Are Missing About Joe Manchin

[This post was originally published in The Atlantic, in March, 2021]

In 2005, I gathered with my fellow West Virginia trial lawyers for our annual conference in Charleston, the state’s capital. After legal seminars, we headed for back rooms, where the gregarious group told stories, drank whiskey, and assessed the latest developments in state politics. That year, we couldn’t stop talking about our new governor, Joe Manchin, because, even though the group had supported his run, he was about to punch us in the face.

I’ve worked both against and with Manchin—first as a young trial lawyer, and later as the vice chair of the state Democratic Party. Together, those experiences allowed me to understand how he operates. Many now believe that the 50–50 Senate puts Manchin in an all-powerful position. Some have joked that his support will be so sought-after that the state will be the home of a new federal spaceport. Others fear that his conservative tendencies spell doom for the progressive agenda. The media are looking for clues in his every action as to what he thinks and how he’ll vote. But these analyses miss what drives Manchin.

The senator doesn’t have an overarching ideology like Bernie Sanders or Ron Paul does. He is not determined to bring home pork in the way that his predecessor, Robert Byrd, did. Manchin has skillfully managed his image, to stay viable in a state that went from a Democratic to a Republican majority. He has done that by having a keen sense of what issues and bills are popular at any given moment and of how he can be seen as being on the right side of those issues for the electorate—no matter which party is in favor of them.

All politicians like to think of themselves as problem solvers, but Manchin’s confidence in his ability to build consensus and master the process of politics is extraordinary. In his successful 2004 campaign for governor, he ran on solving basic problems for ordinary people. He carried a binder full of his plans around the state. Like a powerful running game in football, the simplicity of his strategy pays off only if it’s executed consistently and relentlessly.

Back in 2005, Democrats held every statewide executive office except one. Democrats controlled the West Virginia Senate 21–13 and the House of Delegates by an astonishing 72–28. Although George W. Bush carried the state twice, down-ballot West Virginia was solidly blue. So the new governor had a wide lane to tackle almost any issue.

Manchin wanted to be seen as enticing businesses to and keeping them in the state. (That desire sometimes produced very literal results, including when he changed the motto on highway signs from wild and wonderful to open for business.) One of the first bills that Manchin pushed concerned tort reform and the esoteric subject of “third-party bad faith.” West Virginia law required insurance companies to honor a “duty of good faith and fair dealing” to any person making a valid claim. Manchin’s bill erased that duty for liability insurers. He felt like it put too much burden on the insurance industry, which had labeled West Virginia a “judicial hellhole.” This change would also, he said, lower premiums for everyone with car insurance.

If the issue sounds picayune, it’s because you were not in on discussions with the West Virginia trial lawyers, who felt about this bill somewhat like America felt last summer about the potential of a year with no football. This kind of tort reform constituted treason against some of Manchin’s staunchest supporters and even his own kin, one of whom was a former president of the West Virginia Trial Lawyers Association.

An insult such as this demanded a frontal assault. We asked our friends in the legislature to vote the bill down, defeating Manchin from within his own party. We were certain that we would be victorious.

One trial lawyer, though, the one who knew Manchin best, counseled against confrontation, and suggested that we try to make strategic amendments instead. “Joe Manchin is governor now,” he told us, “and no matter what, there is going to be a bill.”

And he was right. Manchin ran over his erstwhile supporters, getting his bill approved and telling West Virginians that he had saved them money on their insurance bills and made the state attractive to businesses again. Correctly calculating that almost everyone has auto insurance, but that relatively few people are lawyers, or have claims, he picked the concern of the many over that of the few on his first issue, his next issue, and many issues after that, and steamrolled to reelection in 2008, even as West Virginia turned redder.

As governor, he had a bill for every problem that reached the top of public consciousness in West Virginia, no matter which way the issue leaned. On the right, he privatized an insolvent workers-compensation insurance system, and cut business taxes. On the left, he abolished the sales tax on food, and believe it or not, he used his strong Democratic majority to pass a cap-and-trade law designed to reduce coal-fired power plants’ emissions. But Manchin was ideologically flexible, and seeing the state change, he shot a cap-and-trade bill with a rifle in a campaign ad just a few years after passing the other one.

In retrospect, few if any of these high-profile bills changed much in the state. But regardless of whether the end result was progress, Manchin was always in motion. An indefatigable operator around Charleston, Manchin would arrive early to work and watch security cameras so that he knew when key legislators arrived. Then he would drop by their offices to secure their support for his bills. He stayed up late for the backroom politicking, even installing a tent behind the governor’s mansion to host a steady stream of gatherings throughout the legislative season. When he needed the votes, he got them.

More than anyone else I’ve met in politics, Manchin truly believed that anyone and everyone could get behind him. My late law partner and mentor, Jim Bordas, who knew Manchin his whole career, did not support him early on because he saw the tort reform coming, but he admired the way Manchin never stopped trying to work with him.

Much of the time, Manchin was able to get people to come around to his side. He navigated the Republican political ads warning of a “war on coal,” a campaign that transformed the state government’s Democratic supermajority into a Republican one. In the 2012 Senate election, the No. 1 industry backing his campaign was mining. The trial lawyers who felt so wronged in 2005? They backed him too.

In the U.S. Senate, Manchin holds the seat of the late Robert Byrd, a powerful and popular politician in the state. Byrd came from what could be called the evangelical Democratic Party. His moral conviction and his thunderous speaking style grew from the crusade for human rights fought in the mine wars. His quest to ameliorate the grinding poverty of some of the country’s poorest citizens through a steady series of appropriations for his state occupied Byrd for at least the latter half of his five-decade Senate career.

Byrd was deemed the “Prince of Pork,” a label that he embraced. One can see his efforts to shower the state with federal money, including the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope, the numerous Robert C. Byrd courthouses, and the Robert C. Byrd stretches of highway. If Byrd were alive today, West Virginia might very well get that Robert C. Byrd Spaceport.

Manchin has a similar devotion to West Virginia, but he has not followed Byrd’s lead, in style or substance. The state is also now a very different place politically than it was when Byrd was senator. In 2014, I was elected vice chair of the Democratic Party, after it suffered catastrophic defeats—the House of Delegates turned majority-Republican for the first time in 83 years; a Democrat switched parties and gave the state Senate a Republican majority; West Virginians elected the first Republican U.S. senator in 60 years; and voters filled all four seats in the U.S. Congress with Republicans for the first time in more than 90 years. Party officials were determined to stage a comeback for the West Virginia Democrats, and we discussed many strategies, including proposing a new progressive agenda—something I was in favor of, as a Bernie Sanders supporter—and following the rightward shift of the voters, which many called Democrat-lite.

Manchin stuck with the voters, a decision consistent with his past record. And despite the state’s sharp turn toward Republicans—even our once-Democratic governor switched parties after he was elected—Manchin has remained in office and maintained his popularity.

He’s done that by seeking to deliver legislation that West Virginians want to see passed. He has not, for example, gotten on the wrong side of coal—an industry whose cultural significance in West Virginia far outstrips its declining economic power. Even though many in the GOP hated the Affordable Care Act, Manchin consistently supported it, knowing that many West Virginians were personally invested in the Medicaid expansion. Some Republicans hoped that the background-check bill that Manchin and Senator Pat Toomey proposed after the Sandy Hook massacre in Connecticut would cripple Manchin in the state, where gun ownership is very common and the Second Amendment is treasured. But again, he had the issue carefully polled: Although gun control was deeply unpopular, most West Virginians had no problem whatsoever with background checks.

Over the past several years, Manchin has been deeply frustrated by the lack of action in the Senate. When he said that he didn’t care whether he won or lost in 2018, he probably meant it. He even considered running for governor again.

But now the Senate is different. Manchin recently said, “We are going to make Joe Biden successful.” That sounds like a cryptic statement, but it’s not too hard to decipher if you look at Manchin’s record. He believes that the people put President Biden and a Democratic Senate in office to get bills passed.

Manchin’s much-publicized commitment to keeping the filibuster rule may seem contrary to his desire to push through legislation. But I don’t think it is. The trend in the Senate is to make exceptions to the filibuster rule, rather than to eliminate it. If an essential bill comes along and Manchin wants it to pass, an exception can be carved out to fit the circumstances and get the job done.

Politically, this path is typical of Manchin, because it keeps his options open. With no filibuster, Manchin might have the 50th-vote power that commentators are so eager to assign to him, but he would also be on the spot for every bill. With the filibuster still nominally in force, the GOP can do all the work on his right flank while he appeals for consensus.

Manchin will certainly flex his muscles when he needs to, especially when it comes to specific issues, including how climate-change legislation might affect his state. But when bills have popular appeal, whether they are sponsored by Republicans or Democrats, I expect Manchin to throw his weight behind them, just as he did when he was governor. And first on the docket is the coronavirus-relief bill. People are hurting, and West Virginians are hurting more than most. There’s going to be a bill, and it can’t come soon enough.