When Joe Manchin was West Virginia’s Governor, he built a reputation as a pro-business centrist Democrat. It served him well during his tenure in Charleston, especially since many issues as Governor are more practical than political.
Since his election to the U.S. Senate in 2010, Manchin has tried to chart a similar path. That’s much more difficult in Washington, where often compromise with the opposing party is seen as a kind of desertion.
It’s not as though Manchin hasn’t tried. Yes, he buddied up with Hillary Clinton in the Presidential race and even brought her to West Virginia. However, after the election Manchin quickly worked to ingratiate himself to Donald Trump, who won 68 percent of the vote here.
Manchin was even under consideration for a Cabinet job and met with the new administration at Trump Tower. Last April, he told Politico, “I’ve had more personal time with Trump in two months than I had with Obama in eight years… he’ll call me and say, ‘Hey, this is Donald.’”
Manchin has backed up his coziness with Trump on the Senate floor. The political website FiveThirtyEight reports Manchin has voted with Trump positions 54 percent of the time, adding credibility to his often repeated line that he is willing to work with both sides of the aisle.
However, notably Manchin did not back the President’s plan in the Senate to repeal Obamacare and was a “no” vote on the just-passed tax bill. In both instances, Manchin says he tried, without success, to find a middle way.
On the tax bill, Manchin brought ten other Democratic Senators to a meeting with top Trump administration officials and 17 Democrats to a press conference where they called for compromise on the tax bill. “What you see is a group of us who are saying to our colleagues, our friends on the Republican side, ‘Please, we want to work with you.’”
But Trump later lashed out at Manchin in a New York Times interview. “We started taxes, and we don’t hear from the Democrats. You know, we hear bullshit from Democrats like Joe Manchin. Joe’s a nice guy, but he talks, but he doesn’t do anything. It’s like he’s the great centrist, but he’s really not a centrist.”
That’s enough to knock Manchin off his balanced straddle, at least for the moment. If Trump keeps it up, Manchin will face even more headwinds in his already difficult re-election bid.
Meanwhile, Manchin clings to that middle ground, which continues to provide the best chance for re-election this year in the face of the state’s continued Republican tilt and strong GOP opposition in the General Election. Manchin even has a Primary Election challenge from his left in progressive Paula Jean Swearengin, who supported Bernie Sanders for President.
Not that long ago Capitol Hill had plenty of centrists—southern Democrats and Northeastern Republicans—but politics have changed. The two parties have migrated away from each other and toward more ideologically pure positions which attract more of the campaign contributions.
The 2018 Senate election in West Virginia will tell us a lot about the landscape. Is there room for a professed centrist or is the middle simply a place where you get run over?