Leadership

04.23.13

Joe Manchin's Model for Red-State Democrats

Last Friday I went to a small breakfast at Third Way where Joe Manchin was the speaker. This was just two days of course after the failed vote, so interest in his thoughts was keen, and I must say he didn’t disappoint. I’ve sat and listened to a lot of senators, and I have to say Manchin was certainly above average in terms of candor and absence of the usual politician’s fog.

Why did he, a red-state senator who famously took a rifle to the climate bill, take this fight on in the first place? “In my culture, people don’t believe Schumer and Obama are going to protect their Second Amendment rights, so I stepped in.” He never quite said why he stepped in not politically but, if you will, morally; but he clearly seemed shaken after the Newtown shootings, so I guess we’ll just have to go with that as the answer.

He described then the process by which he went about trying to find a Republican co-sponsor because “I knew I had to find an A-rated Republican” (by the NRA) to proceed with something that had a chance. That was Tom Coburn for a while. When Coburn dropped out over a somewhat technical disagreement, he found Pat Toomey, fairly late in the process.

I was most interested in how it all was playing back home, so I asked a question to that effect, and I think his answer said a lot about how Democrats from pro-gun states can navigate this issue. He said he was at a picnic the previous weekend, around 200 to 400 people. When he first came in the room, people were skeptical. But he and a guy named “Frank” simply went through the bill and told people what was in it and what was not in it. “Once people started seeing what was in it, they said, ‘Joe, we’re okay.’”

He also admitted that he “polled the living daylights out of it.” The poll—of West Virginians, now—showed 70 percent very strong in support of the bill, and another 13 percent supporting with less intensity, for a total of 83 percent.

Of course, Joe is putting the best face on things. As a reality check, I called my friend Hoppy Kercheval, who hosts a statewide radio show based in my dear old Morgantown, a show I’ve done a few times. Kercheval is conservative and his listeners definitely tilt that way. He said that a lot of calls were quite negative toward Manchin, but his final assessment was that Manchin would survive it: “Joe’s always got 60 percent. Whether I’m hearing from the 5 percent of the 40 percent, I don’t know. It definitely hurt him politically. But enough to lose an election? No.”

Last week, Jon Chait posted a response to my anger and Alec MacGillis’s at the four Democratic senators who voted against the bill. He made, as he usually does, some strong points. None of them was poised to cast the deciding vote, so that being the case, why should they stick their necks out?

But he made one point that wasn’t so good: “The tininess of the step, in comparison with its disproportionate political symbolism, is why it was a perfect case for red state Democrats to defect.” Well. Okay, it was a tiny step substantively. But beating the NRA, which the Democrats had a chance to do, is not a tiny thing. It’s a huge thing. It hasn’t happened in 20 years or more. If this bill was too small-potatoes for Chait, well, the only (or at least most likely) path toward a big-potatoes bill is through chipping away at the NRA’s total control of Congress.

And only red-state Democrats can do that. For the Schumers of the world, it’s easy. But it will take a few Joe Manchins to do it. Four other red-state Democrats voted yes: Mary Landrieu, Tim Johnson, Jon Tester, and Kay Hagan, who is up for reelection next year just like two of the Democrats who voted no (Mark Begich and Mark Pryor). Why did they have courage?

In this context, I now have a little more sympathy for Heidi Heitkamp, because even though she isn’t facing her voters for five years, she is just in her first year in the Senate and probably hasn’t built that basic trust yet. I have less for Begich, who has been in five years, and especially for Pryor, who was first elected back in 2002. (And least of all for Max Baucus, who’s been there since Donna Summer was first topping the charts, and who announced this morning that he is sparing all of us further contemplation of his mental processes by retiring).

My takeaway from Manchin’s talk was this. First, the voters need to trust you in general terms. He’s been around a long time—governor, now senator. People know him. Most do know that he’s not secretly bent on taking away anyone’s right. So that comes first. But then you have to be willing to use that trust to do something a little bit risky with it.  Manchin was willing to do that. For all but the 5 percent of the 40 percent, that makes him a leader. And there’s no reason other red-state Democrats shouldn’t be able to follow his example.