There is now a new most powerful person in the United States: Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia. With the Senate evenly split, Manchin, a Democrat representing a state in which nearly 70 percent of the votes cast in both the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections went to Donald Trump, has the power to break a tied vote on almost any legislative business requiring a simple majority to pass. He can even decide which bills get to be passed with a simple majority.
For some liberals, this is a disheartening prospect. Manchin voted “with Trump” more than any other Senate Democrat, opting to confirm two of the former president’s three Supreme Court nominees and even flirting with endorsing Trump’s reelection campaign.* If the new Democratic majority is forced to craft legislation designed to win over Manchin, it could all but guarantee a watered-down and compromised version of the big and transformative agenda Joe Biden began promising last year.
But, honestly, negotiating with Manchin may not be as difficult as liberals fear. A much more worrying alternative is not just possible but may be taking shape at this very moment.
Joe Manchin is, considering his circumstances, by no means the worst Democratic senator. He is quietly a semi-reliable partisan who opposed the GOP’s tax bill and the repeal of the Affordable Care Act. And while he later suggested to the press that he would consider endorsing Trump, Manchin did vote to oust him in his first impeachment.
This is just about how you would expect a good Democrat from West Virginia to act in our stupid and unrepresentative electoral system. It is Manchin’s responsibility to voice rhetorical independence from party leadership and then vote, most of the time, for the winning side. In a Democratic Congress, with a Democratic president and the issue of aiding or blocking “Trump’s agenda” almost completely off the table, the Democratic leadership has an easy, effective strategy for handling Manchin: find ways to get him on West Virginia local TV talking about all of the things he is accomplishing. The easiest way to do that is to accomplish things.
Manchin has openly signaled that he will be easy to negotiate with. After making headlines for seemingly opposing $2,000 Covid-19 relief checks, he clarified that he would be OK with them if they were means-tested a bit more—but what he really wants is $4 trillion in infrastructure spending.
A moderate senator asking not for a “revenue-neutral” bill but for more spending on economic stimulus and billions of dollars in infrastructure investment is what is known as a good problem to have. As those who remember Barack Obama’s first presidential term could tell you, this is not how things used to work.
The last time Democrats controlled the House, Senate, and White House, the key vote in the Senate was not a vulnerable senator from a state that overwhelmingly supported the previous Republican president; it was Joe Lieberman, from Connecticut. Lieberman—at that point an independent but one who caucused with Democrats—was the sort to extract concessions not merely to have his fingerprints on the final product but to weaken or sabotage whatever liberals wished to do.
The reason Lieberman could get away with this kind of behavior was because he was from a safe seat—or, at least, it was for many years. (He was not very popular in Connecticut by the time he retired.)
In fact, for years, the Democratic members of Congress most likely to seek Republican cover for rejecting popular policies, to quietly pursue a monstrous foreign policy, and just as quietly alter legislation to benefit donors, tended to be entrenched incumbents in very safe seats.
(This was even truer in the House before left-wing challengers began beating incumbents in safe seats—something that is much harder to do in a larger and more expensive Senate race.)
In 2021, there aren’t any Senate Democrats as dedicated as Lieberman was to wrecking the party out of spite or as a power play. (I almost expected Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema, an ideological chameleon working to develop a “maverick” reputation, to play something like this role, but she has been oddly quiet for the last few years of the Trump administration and the beginning of the Biden era.) Still, anyone hoping for Biden to deliver on his promises has less to fear from Key Vote Joe Manchin than they do from, for example, a senator from the other Virginia: Mark Warner.
Warner is exactly the sort of corporatist Democrat who could be replaced with a perfectly standard liberal Democrat (like his fellow Virginia senator, Tim Kaine) but who knows he won’t be, and acts accordingly. Despite facing little threat from a potential Republican challenger (Virginia Republicans haven’t won a statewide election in more than a decade), Warner worked with Republicans numerous times during Trump’s presidency, and never on anything good.
He voted with Republicans to oppose a Bernie Sanders amendment blocking future Medicare and Social Security cuts; negotiated bank deregulation legislation with Republicans; and, for some terrible reason, voted to confirm Gina Haspel, who was complicit in the CIA’s torture program, as the agency’s head. These are not concessions to a Trump-loving base (it’s hard to imagine many Virginia voters looked kindly on his leaving open the possibility of future benefits cuts in the name of deficit reduction). A senator like Warner operates more freely than one like Manchin: This is presumably just what he wants.
This is the kind of work that wins you important friends without—hopefully—losing a constituency of loyal Democratic voters. And Warner does it well: In 2019, when rich donors and industries were panicked at the thought of someone like Elizabeth Warren winning the 2020 Democratic nomination, one person they turned to and pitched on running a Bloomberg-style independent presidential run was Mark Warner.
For the most part, unlike Lieberman, today’s Senate Democratic right-wingers are not vocal apostates. They do not advertise their departures from party orthodoxy. (After HuffPost wrote about the moderate Democrats who supported that bank deregulation deal, Warner’s flack wrote them an unhappy email asking them, basically, to get Warner’s name out of it.) They don’t want to be out in front of a bank deregulation push, and being part of a bipartisan group working on the issue helps obscure their involvement. And they don’t want to be the deciding vote against some key piece of a Democratic president’s agenda, as Joe Lieberman sometimes was; they want to be part of a block of senators who are all trying their best to win bipartisan support.
Which is why the threat to a successful first Biden term isn’t the power of Senator Joe Manchin. It’s the potential power of a gang of “moderate Democrats” teaming up to sabotage his agenda by handing veto power to “moderate Republicans.”
A senator like Manchin has a fairly simple calculation to make: Do popular things and avoid doing controversial things. The challenge for liberals in Congress and the White House is to convince him that good things would be popular. Centrist Democrats in safer seats, on the other hand, want to do things they know would be unpopular (especially among Democratic voters) without being blamed for it.
The worst-case scenario, then, is that Democrats bow to Mitch McConnell and preserve the filibuster not simply because they worry about what some future Republican majority might do but precisely because an influential group of moderates want to exploit it to grab total power over the congressional agenda.
The Washington Post’s Erica Werner reported Thursday morning on the makeup of a new Senate group calling itself (though this is apparently subject to change) the Common Sense Coalition. It consists, right now, of six Republican and six Democratic senators—including Senators Manchin and Warner.
President Joe Biden and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer hopefully understand that they will have much better luck negotiating with Joe Manchin than they will spending the next two years waiting for another self-appointed gang of Senate moderates to make every proposal worse and less popular, only for the Republicans involved to reject the end result anyway. The best way to protect vulnerable incumbents is to take away the power of safe-seat centrists to stall and subvert the will of the majority.
* Correction: A previous version of this article misstated how many of Trump’s Supreme Court nominees Manchin voted to confirm.