June 19, 2014

Joe Manchin: The Outlier | Time Magazine

Jon Meacham

Things are best, he figures, the farther away he can get. As the junior Senator from West Virginia, Democrat Joe Manchin III–charming, plainspoken, moderate–believes his most productive hours as a lawmaker are spent not on the Senate floor or in the cloakroom or committee rooms but on the waters of the Potomac River aboard his houseboat, which, in an act of parochial pride, he plans to christen Almost Heaven.

Anchored 8 miles south of the Capitol, the boat is Manchin’s home when he spends the night in Washington three nights or so a week during session. (“I wasn’t crazy on buying any real estate in Washington, not at all,” Manchin says.) The houseboat and its predecessor, the Black Tie, serve as a kind of floating incubator of that tenderest of Washington flowers in the first decades of the 21st century: bipartisanship. “Nobody knows anybody up here,” Manchin, 66, says of the Senate. “It’s amazing. There just aren’t enough real relationships.”

That’s where the boat comes in. With pizza and beer (and the occasional bottle of merlot, a shared favorite with Republican Saxby Chambliss of Georgia), Manchin routinely invites Senators from both parties out for evening cruises. “Like a Tom Harkin and a Ted Cruz–when would you ever get them together in a room, O.K.?” Manchin said to TIME. “And you’d be surprised how much people have in common.” Charles Schumer of New York is a particularly enthusiastic guest. “Schumer loves it so much, the whole ambience of it,” says Manchin. “Schumer thinks it’s his boat.”

And so Manchin is trying, but by his own account, the task of restoring some measure of comity to the halls of Washington is likely to take more merlot than his boat can safely carry. Moderates like Manchin are an endangered species on Capitol Hill. A conservative Democrat with a bias toward action rather than rhetoric, he represents an older style of politics, and the story of his frustrations with life in the Senate–a story he tells with characteristic candor–puts a face on the largely abstract national angst about Washington. Put another way, if Joe Manchin can’t make headway on the Hill, could anyone?

For now, the answer is probably no. The moment is hardly congenial for centrist dealmaking, which is the skill set that former governors like Manchin often bring to Washington. With the Tea Party defeat of House majority leader Eric Cantor and the troubled re-election bid of Mississippi Senator Thad Cochran, who also faces a challenger from the right, congressional politics is now more often about playing to the base than building alliances between parties. “I know dysfunctional families that function better than the Senate does,” says Manchin. “It’s just crazy.” Given that the dysfunction seems impervious to therapy, a Senator like Manchin has to make a decision: stay and fight, or go? And if he goes–in his case, most likely to return to West Virginia to seek to reclaim the governorship in 2016–then what’s left once the Almost Heaven has sailed away?

Manchin’s journey to the senate began in the small coal-mining town of Farmington, W.Va. He was raised in his grandfather’s grocery store, watching his grandmother take care of the needy in the neighborhood and absorbing the family’s homespun wisdom. “Son, if you can say no with a tear in your eye, you’ll be O.K.,” Manchin’s father, a former mayor of Farmington, would say, urging his son to empathy–or at least the appearance of it, which amounts to much the same thing in politics. It was a working-class world, but the Manchin family was important enough in the state that young Joe remembers Teddy Kennedy eating his grandmother’s spaghetti during the pivotal 1960 West Virginia presidential primary.

Manchin has always had a knack for knowing the right moves. Growing up in the 1950s, his older sister forced him to learn to dance so that she could practice with him–which meant that by the time Joe was old enough for the sock hops, he had something going for him that a lot of other guys didn’t: how to move around the floor. That was how he met and wooed his wife Gayle at a fraternity party at West Virginia University.

A childhood spent in his grandparents’ store tending to customers–listening to them, figuring out what they needed and how to get paid for it–prepared him for the folkways of state politics. After a career in the family businesses, Manchin served in both chambers of the West Virginia legislature, then became secretary of state before winning the governorship in 2004. In Charleston, he was a strong fiscal steward and was a predictably strong defender of the coal industry. In 2010, when he sought the Senate seat vacated by the death of Robert Byrd, he ran a campaign ad in which he took a rifle to a copy of cap-and-trade legislation–anathema to West Virginia’s coal producers.

Hardly subtle, but it was Manchin who, in the wake of the massacre of schoolchildren in Newtown, Conn., in late 2012, joined Pennsylvania Republican Pat Toomey to propose and push legislation to strengthen and expand background checks on gun sales in the U.S. (Pictures of the slain children now hang in the front hallway of Manchin’s D.C. office.) The bill failed, but the effort positioned Manchin as a man willing to take political risks back home for the greater good–and prompted the Washington Post to publish a front-page piece that described Manchin’s Potomac hospitality.

There have been some brighter moments. Last summer, after congressional leaders failed to pass a student-loan fix in part because it lacked the moderates’ support, Manchin and Angus King of Maine met and concocted a new proposal. Bringing along six influential, bipartisan members, Manchin and King beat the dispiriting odds and passed the new bill 81 to 18 in the Senate. It passed overwhelmingly in the House and became law. In the days after the bill’s passage, Manchin’s staff invited King’s staff to come to their office to celebrate and drink moonshine. The two staffs continue to exchange West Virginia pepperoni rolls and Sea Dog beers.


Source: The West Virginia Senator went to D.C. to get stuff done. Oh well