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Here’s What Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema Think About at 3 a.m.

If it seems the two wayward senators have little desire to be part of Team Biden, you’re not wrong.

Sen. Joe Manchin leaves the U.S. Capitol after a vote October 27, 2021 in Washington, DC.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Senator Joe Manchin leaves the U.S. Capitol after a vote on October 27.

It feels as if the Democrats may finally be headed toward passing some version of the Biden agenda, at least in the House. Assuming that happens, the Build Back Better bill will move to the Senate. It’s kind of hard to imagine Joe Manchin and/or Kyrsten Sinema tanking their president’s signature piece of legislation at that late point. But who knows with those two?

We’ve all read a hundred explanations for why the pair behave as they do. There’s the corruption explanation. In Manchin’s case, this is built around the news reported by The Intercept that he has profited from a series of coal companies in which he’s had a stake for years. In Sinema’s, it rests on her campaign contributions and the revelation that she is literally, right now, teaching a course at Arizona State on fundraising. There are other explanations that are more personality-based, and others that are more political, about their respective states.

I think there’s a better way of putting it: Manchin and Sinema don’t see their fates as tied to that of Joe Biden. Look at it like this: Let’s say you’re Maggie Hassan, the first-term senator from New Hampshire, who represents a state Joe Biden won pretty comfortably—by seven points—but which is obviously not like a guaranteed blue state such as Vermont. She’s up in 2022. Republican Governor Chris Sununu has expressed interest in running against her, and he led her 49–41 in one recent poll. Or say you’re Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada, who is also up in ’22 and right now holds a small lead over Adam Laxalt, the scion of a well-known Republican family. Biden won Nevada more narrowly than New Hampshire, by just 2.4 percent.

If you’re those two—in fact if you’re just about any Democratic senator—your interest is clear. You desperately need these bills to pass; for Biden to succeed and keep the promises made to that narrow majority. You want to be able to hit the campaign trail bragging about universal pre-K and the rest, sure, but there’s something more important than that: You want to try to rebuild the coalition that elected Joe Biden in your state. Biden’s voters are your voters. His path to 50.1 percent is yours.

But for Manchin, that isn’t the case. Don’t read this as me making excuses for the guy. He’s maddening and infuriating, acting like he’s practically a co-president. You know the old expression in politics about taking half a loaf. Manchin has gotten about 90 percent of his loaf, and he still hasn’t committed. It’s outrageous.

I’m just explaining why he’s doing it. His electoral coalition—he’s up for reelection in 2024, which is a presidential election year, and which may well feature Donald Trump at the top of the ballot—isn’t Joe Biden’s by a long shot. Biden won a grand total of 29.7 percent of the vote in West Virginia. I haven’t done the math, although we can be sure that Manchin and his people have. But he’s going to have to get some massive percentage of West Virginia voters, many of them Republican, to vote a Trump-Manchin ticket in 2024.

And by the way, I’ve been hearing those “he’s thinking of leaving the party” rumors for a long time, but I don’t see it. Bottom line? He voted twice to convict Donald Trump of high crimes and misdemeanors. He has no future in the GOP whatsoever. As an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, which has been bruited, he could win some goodwill in the state.

But it’s really hard to win an election as an independent. Joe Lieberman did it, but that was a circumstance I doubt Manchin could replicate: The GOP candidate was largely unknown, and most Republican officials in the state endorsed Lieberman. Republicans in West Virginia won’t be endorsing Manchin after those impeachment votes. Assuming the Republicans run a normal person, like one of their three House representatives, and the Democrats nominate a progressive environmentalist type (don’t laugh; such a person can get 25, 30 percent of the vote in that state, maybe even a little more), I see an outcome like Republican 40, Manchin 35, at best.

So Manchin is stuck with the Democratic Party, and it with him. But if he does run in ’24, and does so as a Democrat, he will have to convince a huge number of independents and Republicans that he’s not a party-line Democrat. I can guarantee you that this—more than his coal mines or his apparent anxiety that many people are lazy and don’t want to work—is what he wakes up thinking about at 3 a.m. on that houseboat/yacht.  

The same is true for Sinema, except for the houseboat part. Her calculations are (as ever) harder to figure, because Biden won her state, however narrowly. Nevertheless, she obviously thinks her path to victory, also in 2024, is to assemble a coalition that’s different from the one that elected Biden in Arizona. She’s decided that she needs the votes of a lot of independents and Republicans, and she needs them more than she needs Democratic-base voters like young people and Latinos. There also seems to be a kind of “Arizona sensibility” issue at work here, about maverick-iness and so on, although I can’t help but notice that, to a large degree, her maverick-iness happens to align perfectly her with corporate and business interests (blocking any increase in the corporate tax rate).

Can their behavior be changed? It’s possible that Latino voters can change Sinema’s thinking. Right now, she obviously doesn’t consider that voter demographic as a bloc she has to worry very much about. But a rumored primary challenge from Congressman Ruben Gallego could change that calculus. Gallego leads Sinema in one recent poll. She knows she has to court the Latino vote. But she has to be made to think that it’s decisive. Once she thinks that, she’ll be a different kind of maverick-y.

As for Manchin, well, West Virginia is a lost cause. He does still vote with his party most of the time, except when his vote doesn’t matter. And the alternative to Manchin would be a lot worse. The only solution to the Manchin problem is to elect more Democrats, so his vote doesn’t matter as much. And elect them from states, like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, that Biden won, and where the new senators will know that their political fate is tied to their president’s own.