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Lexington – Joe Manchin, the wild man of the mountains | United States

AMERICAN POLITICS has provided little cause for levity in recent times. So give thanks for the campaign to primary Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia launched by a group of brave left-wingers. A recent email from No Excuses PAC, which was formed by a pair of former aides to Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, threatens to “replace” Mr Manchin and other “conservative Democrats in the Senate who stand in the way of progress”. Without wishing to make excuses for No Excuses, its masterminds seem to know even less about Mr Manchin’s rugged little state than John Denver did, when he co-wrote his great “misty taste of moonshine” homage to West Virginia without ever having set foot there.

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Mr Manchin, a pro-coal, pro-God progressive of the old school, is certainly an outlier in the modern Democratic Party. He scuppered Barack Obama’s environmental agenda and voted to confirm Justice Brett Kavanaugh. He is for the filibuster, against a $15-minimum wage, and last week threatened to derail Joe Biden’s covid-19 relief package until it was made less generous to the unemployed. Yet the fact that he has been elected three times as a Democrat in West Virginia, notwithstanding the state’s hard-right tack, is so improbable that his party had better focus on the positives.

When he governed the state, in 2005-10, all but one of its congressional delegates and senior state-level officers were Democrats. Mr Manchin, who exchanged Charleston for Capitol Hill to succeed Robert Byrd, a legendarily long-serving Democrat, is the only notable Appalachian Democrat left. He won re-election in 2018 after Donald Trump had won West Virginia by a 42% margin. No other Democrat would have got within hailing distance. That the hulking, garrulous native of Farmington (population: 375), West Virginia, has since voted with his party about half the time, including on Mr Biden’s most cherished initiatives, is a bonus it should gratefully pocket.

The left’s efforts to cajole him are sparked by more than frustration, however. The eye-catchingly coiffured senator loves wading into a big debate—especially, as on the filibuster question, when it concerns Senate procedure. As a small-state senator and successor to Mr Byrd, who wrote a four-volume history of the Senate, he considers it one of his pet topics. This makes him a target for those with opposing views. Especially as his free-wheeling style—this week he reiterated his support for the filibuster and for reforming it—suggests a possible openness to persuasion.

In reality, he is not much interested in what anyone in Washington, DC, has to say about almost anything. Though he has a fun time in the capital, aboard the houseboat on the Potomac (called “Almost Heaven”) where he lives midweek, his survival is based on assiduous shoe-leather politicking in West Virginia, village fete by fete, hallooing and chatting to the thousands of voters he knows by name. And his policy positions are set by whatever he believes will keep them happiest in the moment.

As governor, he signed an “alternative energy” standard to diversify the state’s energy mix, then the next year ran for the Senate lambasting a cap-and-trade bill designed to do the same thing (in a campaign ad, he grimly shot the bill down…with a hunting rifle). He is pragmatic, intuitive and, on economic though not cultural issues, changeable. If he sounds pugnacious yet somewhat hazy on the details, it is not because he is open to arguments, but because that is how most West Virginians think about politics.

At a time when character appears increasingly to have been subsumed by the ineluctable forces of political science—asymmetrical polarisation, negative partisanship and the rest—Mr Manchin is a refreshing anomaly. The other big personalities in American public life, including Mr Trump, are all running with the cultural winds; he is leaning into a howling gale. The demise of moderate Democrats even in less conservative places, such as Indiana and Missouri, shows what a unique performance this is. Joe Donnelly and Claire McCaskill were also dab hands at retail politics, yet lacked Mr Manchin’s long record and near universal name-recognition. His success is less a template than a one-off.

That also helps explain why most Democrats want to change the Senate rules. They have won the popular vote in every cycle of Senate elections since 1998. Yet their hopes of passing legislation now rest with a man whose political survival depends on his skill at judiciously picking fights with his own party. Which is, in turn, why changing the rules will be so hard.

Mr Manchin says he is for the filibuster because bipartisanship is still possible. It is an analysis based less on Senate reality than an apprehension that Trump-loving West Virginians are prepared to vote for him on the strength of that claim. They are, as ever, the audience he has in mind—as he further suggests by linking his defence of the filibuster to his predecessor, who made similar arguments for it, and is revered in West Virginia for his decades-long success in bringing home the bacon. Were he to vote against the filibuster, Mr Manchin told The Economist, “Robert Byrd’ll come out of his grave after me and I’m not gonna have that happen.”

In my father’s house

That does not mean he will not shift a bit. A commitment to getting stuff done is, alongside bipartisanship, the other essential feature of his brand. And as he indicated this week, in expressing his openness to filibuster reform, he will be willing to compromise in order to keep both commitments alive.

In so far as he can be predicted—which is admittedly not far—he is on track to support re-literalising the filibuster, forcing the minority to snarl up Senate proceedings with actual debate, but not the issue-by-issue carve-outs most Democrats want. Yet he is probably still a fair few trips home to West Virginia away from making up his mind. And good luck, meanwhile, to any liberal activist or commentator who thinks he can influence Mr Manchin’s calculation either way.

Dig deeper

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America’s battle over election laws (Mar 2021)

This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the headline “The wild man of the mountains”