Politics

Joe Manchin Isn’t Actually the Most Powerful Senator

But the Democratic Party needs him nevertheless.

Joe Manchin wears a suit and tie and a face mask while carrying a folder and walking down a hallway.
West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin walks to the the Senate Chamber on Monday. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

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Joe Manchin is arguably the most conservative Democrat in the 50–50 Senate, and as a result of his position, he gets to help decide the priorities of his party’s agenda—because, simply put, the Democrats need his vote. But considering how relatively tight-lipped he has been about his overall legislative priorities, it’s worth asking: Just how is Manchin going to use this power? And should Democrats actually be grateful that the staunch nonprogressive from West Virginia has such an outsize role in their caucus? To figure out how Joe Manchin may influence the Democrats—and, thus, the other Joe in power—I spoke with Jim Newell, Slate’s senior politics writer, on Wednesday’s episode of What Next. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Mary Harris: Some people have said Joe Manchin is the most powerful man in Washington. Are you buying that?

Jim Newell: No, but he is in an extremely powerful position. He’s kind of being squeezed because he is not determining the agenda, but he is determining what may or may not cut through as part of that agenda. And I think he understands that every little word he says now has veto effect on what can get through Congress. So he’s being a little more careful.

When he entered the chamber, he came in making a statement about being different from other party politicians.

Right. And he also recognizes that he’s the last Democrat standing in West Virginia, in terms of being a really successful career politician in the state.

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It seems like he really enjoys the constituent services part of his job, like getting things done for individuals who call him. But I don’t see major legislation coming from him. Is that fair?

I think so. Part of it is, one, the Senate has stopped legislating. And two, he’s been in the fight in the minority for the past six years. I think what a lot of people don’t appreciate is that Manchin’s a really, really good politician, like he’s a really good retail politician. You see him interact at a town hall and with normal people, he very much has that kind of Bill Clinton–style “I feel your pain,” that sort of ability to connect with people.

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Can you talk about a time you’ve seen it?

I just see him interacting with constituents on Capitol Hill. If they will come up to protest him or ask him to do one thing, he will stand there and talk to them—he won’t run away or anything like that. He will really try to have a conversation. And he communicates effectively. Watching that, you can see how he’s survivd so much even while the West Virginia Democratic Party on the federal level has been carved out.

You say Manchin is loyal to the Democrats in his own, independent way.

He will join bipartisan votes sometimes, but Republicans don’t think he’ll actually be the decider to either kill a Democratic bill or salvage a Republican bill. He’s been asked time and time again whether he’s going to split and join the Republican conference in the Senate. He’s always said no, that he’s a proud West Virginia Democrat. I think he views himself as more of an ancestral Democrat than a contemporary Republican. It seems like every two years there’s always the conversation about whether Joe Manchin will split, and he has never done it.

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I don’t think I understand why people on the left think he’s actually a Republican. If you’re on the left, he seems very conservative from your perspective. But if you want him to just admit that he’s a Republican, he can go ahead and join the Republican side and give them the Senate majority. I don’t think that’s what the left actually wants.

I wonder if, now that Manchin’s in this new position, you’ll see Democrats making nice with him or trying to find a new relationship with him.

I think everyone knows that they’re all in this together and that you can’t just yell and scream at Manchin. That’s not going to work out for you. I was talking to one Senate staffer when there was some pressure for Manchin to be stripped of his committee assignments if he didn’t go along with Dems on trying to block Kavanaugh. The staffer told me that Chuck Schumer did not have that power over Manchin. No one can really tell him what to do.

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When the Senate was passing the budget resolution last week, Joe Manchin worked out a nonbinding vote that no stimulus checks should go to upper income taxpayers. It passed 99–1. I think that was Senate Democrats kind of holding Manchin’s hand a little bit, telling him that his concern was being listened to. It’s kind of a delicate thing they’re working with.

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Part of Manchin’s power is that he’s openly talked about not running for his seat at certain points, like just retiring. That would put Democrats in a bind of having to figure out how they’re going to make the math work in their favor.

That’s what makes him kind of tricky. I understand how frustrating it can be for Democrats that this one guy can dictate so much of what goes in the final bill, especially when it’s stuff you’ve been working on for years, policy you’ve developed for the next time you take power. But on the other hand, you have to thank your lucky stars that Joe Manchin exists. He’s a unicorn. I mean, a West Virginia Democrat in 2021 who can get reelected a couple of times—it’s kind of a miracle.

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