The Slatest

Joe Manchin Will Stay in the Senate Because He Could Become Its Most Powerful Member

Sen. Joe Manchin answers questions at the U.S. Capitol.
Sen. Joe Manchin answers questions at the U.S. Capitol on July 9.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin has spent his time in the Senate loudly complaining about how much it “sucks” serving in the structurally broken chamber. For the past few months, Manchin—who just began a new six-year term in January—had an escape plan to mull over: challenging West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice—who won the governor’s mansion in 2016 as a Democrat before switching to the GOP the following year—for the governorship in 2020. Manchin served as governor prior to his Senate election in 2010, and he has called it the “best job in the world.”

On Tuesday morning, though, Manchin announced that he had decided against life-affirming professional satisfaction, and he would stay in the Senate. “[W]hen considering whether to run for Governor, I couldn’t focus just on which job I enjoyed the most, but on where I could be the most effective for the Mountain State,” he said in a statement. “Ultimately, I believe my role as U.S. Senator allows me to position our state for success for the rest of this century.”

That second sentence is a syntactical head-scratcher, but here’s the gist of what he’s trying to say: Maybe the Senate wouldn’t suck as much for Joe Manchin if he were the most powerful person in it.

How it would be for the rest of the party is another question. With a narrow Republican majority in the Senate, Manchin, the most conservative Senate Democrat, has been a necessary nuisance for his party caucus, someone who constantly has to be kept from straying to the wrong side of the aisle while the Democrats scramble to persuade a few Republicans to defect their way on one issue or another. But if Democrats win the White House in 2020 while scratching out 50 Senate seats, the senior senator from West Virginia will hold a determinative vote, paired with a powerful committee chairmanship—putting him in a position to ensure all legislative roads run through the party’s rightward margin.

In light of this, it’s a little silly that the presidential primary campaign spends so much time weighing the merits of Kamala Harris’ health care plan versus Bernie Sanders’, or Sanders’ approach to climate change versus Joe Biden’s. A much more efficient approach to gaming out hypothetical Democratic legislation in 2021 would be to ask Manchin what he’s willing to accept on any given issue.

On climate change, particularly, Manchin’s sway would go far beyond his individual vote. He currently serves as ranking member on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which has partial jurisdiction over climate change policy. He would be in line to serve as chairman should Democrats win a majority. Manchin is not a climate change denier, but he is the guy who shot a copy of cap-and-trade legislation during his initial Senate run in 2010. In his statement declining to run for governor, Manchin said that he would “push the Senate to take up and pass energy technology bills that invest in all-of-the-above energy that will keep our country as the world economic leader” and that he seeks to “build an energy base that protects jobs, keeps prices low, and recognizes the reality of climate change.” We would only find out what that means if and when he decided what climate change policy the rest of the Democrats in Washington could either take or leave.

Democrats were justifiably thankful Tuesday morning that Manchin chose to stay. Had Manchin run for governor and won, the party affiliation of his temporary Senate successor would have come down to a game of chicken between Manchin, Justice, and an ocean of lawyers. A Democratic Senate vote from West Virginia is better than no Democratic Senate vote from West Virginia. But should Democrats unify control of Congress and the White House in 2020, the leverage that convinced Manchin to stay will be the source of apoplexy to those Democrats sighing relief today.