The Left Should Leave Joe Manchin Alone
Attorney General Jeff Sessions is the Trump administration Cabinet member for whom Democrats harbor the most disgust. He was accused of making racially insensitive comments while serving as U.S. attorney in Alabama. In the Senate, he voted against bills supportive of gay rights, and he voted against legislation authorizing programs that protect domestic violence survivors. His complaints about “voter fraud” worry Democrats who see the phrase as cover to push an agenda of voter suppression.
So whatever one thinks of the propriety or utility of the Democrats’ blistering verbal attacks on Sessions, it’s understandable. But what’s the point of going after Joe Manchin?
When Manchin, the West Virginia senator who proves that the phrase “moderate Democrat” is not an oxymoron in Washington, crossed party lines to vote for Sessions’ confirmation, he suffered withering attacks from the left. Paul Blest, at The Week, tagged Manchin as a “Vichy Democrat.” The official Twitter account for the Women’s March suggested an appetite for a primary challenge: “We will vote NO on Manchin.” Progressive CNN pundit Sally Kohn sounded ready to run herself. “Extremely tempted throw my family in the car, move to West Virginia and spend the next 23 months doing everything possible to unseat Manchin,” she said. Manchin may attract more lefty ire this week: He opposes the filibuster of Trump’s choice for Treasury secretary, Steve Mnuchin, the Goldman Sachs alum whom critics have accused of running a “foreclosure machine” in the aftermath of the 2008 housing collapse.
The impulse on the left to punish Manchin is suicidal. A former governor who has been winning statewide in West Virginia since 2000, he holds a Senate seat that without his selective departures from party orthodoxy would be firmly in Republican hands. Forgoing it is a luxury Democrats can’t afford.
If Democrats are to have any hope of taking control of the Senate in the 2018 midterms, they need to cling to every red state seat they possess. And they have a lot: 10 are up for re-election next year, with Manchin’s being the reddest of them all. No state in this country gave Trump a higher percentage of the vote (a whopping 68.6). But Trump is no fluke. Outside of Manchin, the rest of the West Virginian congressional delegation is Republican, and all won their races comfortably.
The Senate map presents a conundrum for a left now informally known as “The Resistance.” Many are pressuring congressional Democrats to resist Trump on all fronts, but to apply that standard to all Democrats risks shrinking the caucus and diminishing the power to resist.
There is a way out of that conundrum: Leave red state Democrats like Manchin alone when they occasionally stray, especially when the vote in question is substantively meaningless. Sessions already had the votes to be attorney general. Manchin’s extra “aye” didn’t change the outcome.
Ari Berman, a writer for the liberal Nation magazine, reacted to Manchin’s vote by tweeting, “I know Joe Manchin represents WV, but protecting civil rights must be bedrock principle of Dem Party.” But it still is! Manchin’s one vote doesn’t alter the party platform. Nor did Manchin undercut the strong statement made by the rest of his caucus by attacking fellow Democrats for their votes. He merely said he knew Sessions personally from their time in the Senate and didn’t believe he was bigoted.
Some on the left argue that a political strategy based on accommodating “Blue Dog” Democrats is an outdated approach. “[T]his is mind-blowing in its defeatism,” writes Paul Blest. “Not only has the Blue Dog strategy completely fallen apart since 2010 — just 17 Democrats remain as members of the House Blue Dog Coalition — but it doesn't take into account the fact that lefty economic populism has won in West Virginia before.”
This is convoluted logic. The Blue Dog caucus shrunk because of a backlash to President Obama’s aggressive legislating in conservative-leaning districts. Moreover, while Trump proved that a form of economic populism packs punch in areas once represented by Blue Dogs, it was a right-wing populism that included broadsides against immigrants and Black Lives Matter.
We also know from the 2014 midterm election results that red state Democrats, even those with deep roots in their states, take a big risk if they vote the party line too much. Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, both long-time senators with family names synonymous with their state’s politics, were easily defeated after advertising barrages tarred them with voting on the side of Obama more than 90 percent of the time.
That cold political reality doesn’t require the entire Democratic Party to adopt a “Blue Dog strategy.” Hillary Clinton’s “Stronger Together” message won three million more votes than Trump’s, so a hard tack rightward is also political suicide. But to maximize party strength in a Congress structured to favor rural America, in a nation nearly evenly divided along cultural lines, a little tolerance for opposing views inside the party tent is required.
Certainly there’s a point at which a party member can distance oneself so far that they cease to have value. In 2003, Sen. Zell Miller wrote a book stingingly titled “A National Party No More,” which excoriated his fellow Democrats for their liberalism. He followed that up by endorsing Republican George W. Bush’s re-election and accusing the Democratic nominee, Sen. John Kerry, of wanting to “outsource” our national security to “Paris” and arm our military with “spitballs.” Now that’s a Democrat in Name Only. Manchin is nowhere near that point.
He takes many positions that offend my liberal sensibilities. He opposed President Obama’s efforts to avert a climate crisis. He opposed federal funding of Planned Parenthood. He has expressed support for requiring photo IDs to vote. Any West Virginian sitting in that Senate seat is going to take similar positions. But not every West Virginian would help make Chuck Schumer Senate majority leader and stifle the vast majority of Trump’s conservative agenda.
The urge to purge has failed the left before. As I have previously noted in this space, the 2010 primary challenge of “Blue Dog” Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln helped soften her up for a general election defeat. The 2006 challenge to Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman successfully ousted him from the party, but not from the Senate, since he won in November as an independent and proceeded to move farther right. A frustrated President Franklin Roosevelt tried to dislodge several conservative Democrats in the 1938 primaries, but only succeeded in tightening their informal alliance with Republicans.
Instead of haranguing Manchin, the left should thank him for taking the political risk of staying in the Democratic Party and joining the Senate Democratic leadership. He could have switched parties. He could have joined Trump’s Cabinet. Instead, he’s working to hold his piece of red turf for the Democrats. And you’re not going to get very far telling Manchin how he should do that. He knows his state better than you.