‘Washington Sucks’

Mike Pence Swung at Joe Manchin, and Joe Manchin Hit Back Harder

A lot of liberals don’t have much love for the senator from West Virginia, but he just showed others in the party how to reply when this White House comes at you.

Photo Illustration by Sarah Rogers/The Daily Beast

Liberals like to scoff at Joe Manchin, but after yesterday I think it’s pretty obvious that a lot of them can learn something from the West Virginia senator. He knows how to hit back.

Vice President Mike Pence was in Lewisburg, West Virginia, Wednesday where he gave a speech that tore into Manchin. Pence attacked Manchin’s vote against the tax bill and then continued: “But it’s not just the tax cut. Senator Joe Manchin has voted no time and again on the policies that West Virginia needs. When the time came to repeal and replace the disaster of Obamacare, Joe voted no. When we empowered West Virginia to defund Planned Parenthood, Joe voted no.”

As you know, Donald Trump is popular in Manchin’s state. Gallup found this week that it’s his best state, at 61 percent approval. And Manchin is up for reelection this year (hence Pence’s tirade).

Under such circumstances, a lot of Democratic politicians would go hide. They’d start explaining defensively: Oh but I like the president. Oh but I voted for Gorsuch. Oh this, oh that.

Manchin, famous for that ad where he shot the cap-and-trade bill, apologized for nothing. He took square aim at Pence and tweeted: “The VP’s comments are exactly why Washington Sucks.” Far from giving any ground, he went on the attack in a second tweet: “I am shocked that after the @VP worked for almost a year in a divisive & partisan way to take healthcare away from almost 200k WVians, bankrupt our hospitals & push tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans & huge corporations that he would come to #WV & continue partisan attacks.”

Manchin, of course, has taken some pro-Trump votes. In a state like that, he has to. He also was the only Democrat to applaud Trump’s State of the Union address at certain points. But what’s smart and tough about his reply is that he’s saying to Pence (and inferentially to Trump): No. You guys are hurting the people of my state.

Nearly 200,000 people are losing their health care, in a state with high rates of uninsured people and a raging drug crisis and all kinds of bleak health care indicia. West Virginia—my home state, as some of you know—also ranks 49th in the number of millionaires, so it’s not as if that tax bill is exactly tailored to the needs of the state.

And don’t think that Manchin hasn’t taken some tough votes that by West Virginia standards took guts. On Planned Parenthood, back in 2015, after that infamous (but very heavily edited) video came out with the PPFA person speaking cavalierly about fetal organs, Manchin did indeed vote to cut the group’s funding. But then, an investigation ensued, and it turned out that Planned Parenthood wasn’t engaged in any of those kinds of activities. So in March 2017, Manchin voted against a Republican defunding bill.

That’s not an easy vote in West Virginia. Manchin press aide Jonathan Kott defended his boss’ position this way last May to Axios: “‘The senator will vote to fund Planned Parenthood because the investigations showed no evidence that the organization was selling or profiting from fetal organs. His support for PP is also contingent on the Hyde Amendment being law, to ensure public funds don’t go to abortions.’ Kott also points out that the only Planned Parenthood clinic in West Virginia doesn’t perform abortions.”

That’s admirably fact-based. It’s going to open Manchin up to some ugly 30-second ads this fall, probably. Manchin may not be pro-choice advocates’ favorite Democrat (and he wouldn’t want to be), but liberals ought to ask themselves if any of the West Virginia Republicans vying to run against Manchin would be that bold.

But now let’s get to the heart of the matter to me, which is the opioid crisis. It’s killing the state. Read this heartbreaking report about the town of Kermit, sometimes called the ground zero of the opioid crisis, from the excellent web site 100 Days in Appalachia, which has been vividly chronicling life in the region since the election. It’s merely one of hundreds of stories.

Did Pence take time out from his diatribe against Manchin to address the crisis? Oh, he mentioned it, once. Boilerplate; the usual fulsome and cloying praise of Trump that we’ve come to associate with the vice president. But he said nothing of substance—you might call his line substance abuse.

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He was following up on Dear Leader’s shocking discussion of the crisis in his State of the Union address Tuesday night. “In 2016, we lost 64,000 Americans to drug overdoses: 174 deaths per day. Seven per hour,” Trump said. Good start. But then what did he pivot to? Not treatment. “We must get much tougher on drug dealers and pushers if we are going to succeed in stopping this scourge,” he said.

This is so idiotic as to be offensive. If you get rid of one drug dealer, three others fight to take his place. Anybody knows this at this point. Trump mentioned treatment afterward, but in a pro forma sort of way. The Republicans won’t do anything real about this crisis because doing something real about it takes money, and they won’t spend money; it might even require a tax, and we all know they will never do that.

My family has known Joe’s for a long time. My father was a prominent attorney who was involved in Democratic politics. Joe’s uncle, A. James, was the flamboyant secretary of state forever when I was kid, with his floral ties and wide-brimmed fedoras and his erudite 19th-century vocabulary (he once called a man who had sullied the state’s good name a “scurrilous jackanapes”). So yes, I have a soft spot for him.

After this exchange with Pence, you should too. More liberal Democrats, Democrats who are far better positioned to be Trump critics, can learn a thing or two from how he handled this.