Like 82 million others, I voted last year to entrust America to a moderate Democrat named Joe.
Little did I expect that the Joe who’d end up with the last word on a host of vital national issues would be Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia.
Manchin's ascendancy came thanks to the Democratic victories in the two Georgia runoff races in January. That gave the party 50 votes in the Senate and control, thanks to the decisive tie-breaking vote of Vice President Kamala Harris, so long as the caucus maintains unity. What they could not count on, it turned out, was Manchin.
On issues from cabinet nominations to the filibuster to the minimum wage, Manchin has seized the power that breaking from the Democratic majority gives him. He does this in the name of being a so-called centrist, a moderate. But the reality is that he is proving to be a MINO, a moderate in name only, embracing views that are more like those of the increasingly radical Republican Senate caucus than they are like those of his Democratic colleagues.
Much the same applies to alleged Republican moderates Mitt Romney, Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, and Rob Portman. Because they don't breathe rhetorical fire, because they occasionally talk about bipartisanship and criticize Donald Trump, they are regularly seen as potential "swing votes." But that is, with rare exceptions, an illusion. They vote with the hard right in the GOP as will, on a number of issues important to the new administration, Senator Manchin.
One of the earliest signs that Manchin was perfectly happy to play the spoiler disrupting the aspirations of his own party leadership came even before the Democrats took control of the Senate. While negotiations were taking place between Democratic leader Chuck Schumer and Republican leader Mitch McConnell over the new power-sharing arrangements in the 50-50 Senate, McConnell sought to put a stake through the heart of any idea the Democrats might have of seeking to abolish the filibuster, one of McConnell’s favorite tools of obstruction in the Senate, vital to enabling his minority to continue to block key legislation that could not make it to the filibuster threshold of 60 votes.
Manchin publicly announced his opposition to removing the filibuster. His rationale was that of all filibuster advocates, that it was an important institutional legacy in the Senate and helped drive bipartisanship by forcing the majority to seek some minority support for their legislation. Neither of these assertions are true, however. The filibuster was rarely used in the first 200 years of U.S. history and once it began to be used more frequently, from the 1990s onward, it was almost always used to block the passage of legislation rather to leverage opposing sides into dialogue.
Manchin was not, it should be noted, the only Democratic senator to express this view. Senator Kristen Sinema of Arizona did as well. But, Sinema is one of those rare senators in the middle who actually seems to be a moderate, showing flexibility and voting on principle.
And that was Manchin just getting started. He then targeted Neera Tanden, saying that he would oppose Biden’s nominee for Office of Management and Budget director, because he was offended by the tone of some of her tweets targeting politicians with whom she had disagreements. Here Manchin’s hypocrisy came to the fore, because in the past he had voted to support nominations such as that of Ambassador Richard Grenell, a man with a well-known history as an odious internet troll. Manchin said now was different, however, that in the wake of the events of Jan. 6 he was “all about bipartisanship. This is not personal at all. There’s a time for bipartisanship to begin.”
Apparently, for Manchin, that time came after four years of Trump abuses, after the ranting and attacks of the likes of Trump Supreme Court nominee and now Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Manchin was the only Democrat to vote for Kavanaugh’s confirmation.
Manchin also voted to support Jeff Sessions to be attorney general despite Sessions’ overtly racist history.
Manchin also initially expressed concerns about the nomination of Rep. Deb Haaland to become secretary of the interior. Haaland, who would become the first Native American Cabinet secretary, has been targeted by the GOP for her environmental activism. But it was impossible to wonder whether she was targeted for another reason, because she, as a woman of color like Tanden, was being held to a different standard than men like Trump, Sessions, Kavanaugh, or Grenell. (Sure enough, at Haaland’s hearing on Wednesday, chaired by Manchin, GOP Sen. John Barasso of Wyoming objected to a tweet of Haaland’s last year in which she, as Tanden regularly did, simply spoke the truth, asserting the GOP does not believe in science.)
It should be noted that, after a battering from many Democrats including notably, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the first set of hearings with Haaland, Manchin released a statement headlined “Haaland Commits to Working with Chairman Manchin on West Virginia Priorities” suggesting that he might be more amenable to her candidacy.
Regardless of Manchin’s ultimate position on Haaland, it is not “moderate” to establish a higher standard for women of color than for white men, or a lower one for right-wing Republicans than for Democrats. It is not “moderate” to misstate the historical role the filibuster has played nor to undercut your own party’s leadership time after time after time.
It is also not moderate to oppose an increase in the minimum wage. Manchin, this time joined by Sen. Sinema, who also came out against ending the filibuster, announced he would oppose using reconciliation to pass a badly overdue hike to the federal minimum wage, blocking the path to passing that with only 50 votes plus the vice president. Despite representing the state with America’s sixth-highest poverty rate, Manchin has sided with the Republican right in making the dubious argument that raising the minimum wage, which is currently lower than it was in the mid-’70s when adjusted for inflation and has not been raised since 2009, would hurt small businesses.
Manchin is said to be OK with an $11 minimum wage. That’s close to the level proposed this week by another so-called “moderate,” Mitt Romney, and Tom Cotton, who has never been accused of being a moderate. But their proposal is not only low, it would come with the caveat that they would only support it if business are also required to electronically verify they are not hiring undocumented workers.
A 2019 Pew poll showed 67 percent of all Americans support a $15 minimum wage. Which begs the question: Why is it considered “moderate” to oppose something two out of three Americans support? That puts opponents in the farthest-right third of the population. A majority of Americans support the Keystone Pipeline as does Deb Haaland. According to a 2019 Gallup Poll 60 percent of Americans want America to reduce dependency on fossil fuels… and only 22 percent of Americans want, as some of Manchin’s sponsors do, a greater emphasis on coal. Once again, his position, and that of other MINOs, is not moderate at all. (Just as voting to uphold your oath and the Constitution does not make one a moderate either—it’s the bare minimum we should expect from senators of either party.)
Fortunately, for America, it was not Joe Manchin who was elected president last November. Joe Biden, who some progressives feared would not listen to them and be “too centrist,” is already proving himself to be a president for the whole party. This means that there are powerful forces at work to counteract the attempted usurpation of power by the likes of Manchin and to drive home the message to other self-described moderates that the center in American politics has shifted and they are now increasingly out-of-step.
That said, the only way to truly end bring an end to the brief and unwelcome faux-presidency of Joe Manchin is for Democrats to not just hold but broaden their majority in 2022 and take away from this man, an outlier and a hypocrite, the power he currently wields.