The Curious Case of Joe Manchin By Joshua Turner
Joe Manchin, the mercurial Senator from West Virginia, provides perhaps the most interesting litmus test for what the Democratic Party might become in the next few years. Manchin has a history of bucking the party when it suits his political needs (Manchin shooting a potential cap and trade bill springs to mind) and that inclination arose once again when he voted to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.
This has put Democrats in an interesting position natoinallyBernie . Manchin is the only Democrat to vote for Kavanaugh and, as it turned out, was able to manipulate the timing of his announcement so that his vote had no practical effect on the outcome. However, this was not a standard confirmation process and the rage shown by Democratic voters at what they saw as an unfair process and a sham FBI investigation will now be directed at Manchin. How much of that anger seeps into his own West Virginia constituents remains to be seen.
This leaves national Democrats with two options, both of which pose serious issues. They could choose to break off all support for Manchin (as some groups have already done) and effectively hope he loses his race so that a more progressive candidate could run for his seat in six years, or attempt to primary him should he win. The act of pulling support would send a message to other Democrats that to buck the party line on issues seen as being serious and important to the national party would have real consequences.
The second option would be to take a more pragmatic approach and accept that not all Democrats can be united on every issue. While Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s platform is very appealing in a progressive district, had Doug Jones run on it for his Alabama Senate race, we could very well have a Senator Roy Moore (or so this line of thinking goes). There is certainly some anecdotal evidence that bears this view out; take Jon Ossof and Connor Lamb. Ossof ran on a very progressive agenda in an Atlanta suburb and lost despite raising a whopping $30 million. Lamb ran on an agenda that was seen as being much more in tune with his rural district and won, raising only $8.5 million.
Taking the first path would likely mean abandoning all hope of winning the senate in 2018, but could lead to a more homogenous party down the road. Democrats have traditionally been more difficult for leaders to keep in line (which tends to happen when Joe Manchin and Bernie Sanders are both in the leadership of your party) but a party more squarely unified around a progressive agenda would make it easier to articulate a forceful message. Democrats will have to ask themselves if this type of unity is worth appealing to a potentially smaller number of people, most of whom are located in the North East and West coasts.
Taking the second path would signal an attempt to woo back independents and Obama-Trump voters by forgoing litmus tests and allowing candidates to build their own brands under a larger Democratic tent. This has the value of allowing candidates to best appeal to their districts while campaigning but does signal some future difficulties should they get elected and then feel the pressure to vote in accordance with the national party, which will almost always be more progressive. While both paths are potentially fraught, time is fast running out for Democrats to make a decision about the direction of their party.
By being so outspoken about his independence and given that he is a part of the Democratic leadership representing the state Donald Trump was most successful in during 2016, Manchin has become a kind of weathervane for what the party will value going forward. An embrace of Manchin indicates that the party will remain open for more moderate members. Any attempt to freeze Manchin out, like many progressives would like to do, will be indicative of a grassroots asserting control in a fashion similar to Tea Party Republicans in 2010.
Joshua Turner is a Masters of International Relations candidate at American University