Mr. Manchin stays in Washington | The Economist
EVER since Joe Manchin, an old-style centrist Democrat from West Virginia, arrived in the Senate in 2010, he found himself puzzled by colleagues who adore the institution, when its partisan paralysis drives him to despair. He spent much of this year weighing whether to quit Washington and head home to run for his old job of governor in 2016. He even commissioned a poll which showed him winning a gubernatorial contest handily. As he pondered, he confronted a veteran senator with a (not wholly serious) hunch. Is there some hidden club in this place, and that’s why you’d sell your souls to stay, Mr Manchin asked him: because if so, I haven’t had the secret handshake? His colleague murmured about the Senate being more productive in the old days, when members were less afraid to cross party lines. “Well it sure as shit isn’t working well now,” Mr Manchin observed.
Now 67, the senator was born to a family of shopkeepers in a small mining town where “By God, they didn’t like slackers”. He climbed the political ladder in a state where party labels are trumped by a shared faith in the Bible, guns and coal. Arriving in Washington he set about wooing colleagues from left and right. He moored a houseboat on the Potomac as his home, hosting dinners for senators who otherwise rarely mix. Tea Party firebrands and tribunes of the left bonded on its decks, toasting the sunset and munching pizza or his wife’s spaghetti with meatballs. Yet back in the Senate, these efforts achieved little. A low point came when colleagues snubbed Mr Manchin’s response to the school massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012. It was a modest bill that would have expanded the number of gun-buyers checked for histories of crime or severe mental illness, crafted to win bipartisan support after it became clear that bolder plans backed by President Barack Obama were doomed. Still it failed.
So the Washington village was abuzz when he announced in April that he was staying put. This week, with Congress in recess, he hit the road in West Virginia to explain his decision to voters. Watching him was a semi-cheering experience.
The bad news is that the senator is mostly betting that Washington gridlock will ease after the next presidential election in 2016, whoever wins the White House. Personally, he would have left Washington in a “heartbeat”, he says. But with big changes possible next year that would have felt like failure. Mr Manchin is frustrated by Mr Obama, sorrowing that the president makes policy fights personal, breaking a cardinal rule of Manchin-politics by questioning Republicans’ motives and morality. The West Virginian puts still more hope in the retirement of his party’s Senate leader, Harry Reid, a ferocious partisan who delights in thwarting Republicans at every turn. Mr Manchin hopes to see Senator Charles Schumer of New York become party leader. Though Mr Schumer is to his left on many issues, he is a dealmaker, Mr Manchin says approvingly. With the Senate likely to remain finely balanced, centrists should be in high demand.
Meeting editors from the Intelligencer, Wheeling News-Register, a newspaper, Mr Manchin pondered America’s crumbling bridges and roads. He wondered aloud about recruiting colleagues willing to risk a debate on funding infrastructure in new ways, perhaps through a half-percent national sales tax. Maybe those planning to retire might prove brave enough. He hailed the nine other ex-governors in the Senate, calling them a problem-solving bunch. Alas, he admitted later, next year’s elections are already bogging down the Senate, as Republicans running for the White House posture, and Democrats seek votes that make them look compassionate and opponents heartless. Demonising the other lot is not Mr Manchin’s way. In an age when Democrats and Republicans excel at stoking the partisan anger of core supporters, he is at pains to respect those who disagree with him.
The good news is that voters respond to this approach. Like so many states to its south, West Virginia—an impoverished slice of the Appalachian mountains, home to 1.9m people—has taken a sharp Republican turn in recent years. In 2012 West Virginia overwhelmingly rejected Mr Obama even as it re-elected Mr Manchin. It helps that he has a talent for political theatre. Like many senators he trundles around his state in a hulking four-wheel drive. Unlike most, his is not shiny black but white and announces in large letters on its sides and back: “Mobile Office of Senator Joe Manchin. For Official Use Only”, transforming a comfy car into a rolling advertisement for probity.
Drugs are killing rural Americans: where is the Senate?
The senator also sees a cause worthy of a fight. West Virginia faces epidemics of prescription-drug abuse and heroin. No state has higher rates of death by overdose. This week he held his first public meetings devoted to drugs. Mr Manchin nodded to conservatives who want more prisons built. Some people need to be in jail, indeed “some need to be under the damn jail,” he thundered. Those on welfare should be tested for drugs, he added. But then he suggested, gently, that long sentences for non-violent drug offences had been tried for 20 years and have not worked. He invited ex-addicts to talk about effective treatments. Hushing a meeting of police chiefs, federal agents, clergy and students, a mother talked of trying to save her daughter from addiction. “It was like trying to stop a train with the palm of your hand,” she said.
Mr Manchin has already helped to make addictive painkillers harder to buy. He dreams of a tobacco-style campaign against pharmaceutical companies and wholesalers that, he notes, sent at least 200m prescription opioid pills to West Virginia, just in the years 2007-12. Let both parties take credit for acting if they like, says Mr Manchin: drugs affect Republican and Democratic states. Presidential candidates barely mention the epidemic, because it defies easy solutions. That gives senators—politicians with the time to debate knotty problems, and the clout to clear bureaucratic logjams—a chance to be useful. He hopes they take it.
Source: A centrist Democrat sees a chance to move beyond Senate gridlock
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