The Slatest

Why Would Joe Manchin Switch Parties Now?

A demonstrator wears a photograph of Sen. Joe Manchin as a mask while playing a puppet-master, holding a puppet of Chuck Schumer in one hand and Joe Biden in the other.
Honestly, it’s a sweet gig. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Seasons change, administrations come and go, billionaires go to space, and then they come back. One constant over the past decade, though, is that West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin has been a Democrat the entire time, despite regular news cycles about how he might switch parties.

These party-switching rumors have existed since Manchin was merely the senator-elect from West Virginia. Back then, in 2010, his spokesperson affirmed that he “is a lifelong Democrat, and he is not switching parties.” The rumors came up again in 2016, and yet again when Trump considered him for a Cabinet position in 2017. In 2019, Manchin said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell had tried to get him to switch parties “many times.”

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“Sen. Manchin has pointed out over and over again he’s been a Democrat all of his life,” McConnell said in an interview earlier this year, conceding that he’d stopped trying. “I am certainly not anticipating that he’s going to cross the aisle.”

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On Wednesday, Mother Jones’ David Corn reported that Manchin “has told associates that he is considering leaving the Democratic Party if President Joe Biden and Democrats on Capitol Hill do not agree to his demand to cut the size of the social infrastructure bill from $3.5 trillion to $1.75 trillion.” Corn reported further that it was “unclear” whether Manchin, as an independent, would caucus with the Democrats or Republicans, a decision that would decide control of the Senate.

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The story was up a matter of minutes before Manchin profanely shot it down.

“This is bullshit,” he told reporters of the story. “Bullshit.”

He elaborated further, later:

“I can’t control rumors,” he said, “and it’s bullshit, bullshit spelled with a B-U-L-L, capital B.”

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Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit! Corn stands by his reporting.

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A senator like Manchin can say he won’t switch parties however many times he wants, over however many years, and then change his mind in an instant when the conditions are ripe. Say, for example, Republicans take the Senate back in 2022, and Manchin decides he wants to run for reelection in 2024 in a state that votes Republican by 40 points in presidential election cycles. Maybe the conditions would be ripe, then, to ditch the Democrats.

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But the reason I believe that the rumors are B-U-L-L this time is that the threat would be a superfluous way for Manchin to gain leverage over the Build Back Better negotiations. He already has all the leverage he needs to trim the bill in half: the 50th vote. We know that he’s had success in wielding this power, because Democrats have already agreed to his demand to cut the size nearly in half, with President Joe Biden telling Democrats most recently that the target cost of the package should be $1.9 trillion. Manchin is getting his way in removing the meatiest of climate change provisions and other human infrastructure programs. The expanded child tax credit—a crown jewel of Democrats’ agenda—is on a path toward being gutted in its scope because Manchin has insisted it be so.

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“Manchin has repeatedly said he has a significant philosophical difference with most of his fellow Democrats,” Corn writes, noting that Manchin recognizes how “out of sync” he is with the rest of his party. That’s all true. But in the status quo, he has a plum committee chairmanship, is the most powerful swing vote in Congress with a singular ability to deliver for West Virginia, and can bend the party to his will on the overall size and scope of its signature legislation—much of which he likes, by the way. There’s no need to rock the boat with a philosophical self-identification crisis now.

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