Joe Manchin’s strong suit has never been the specifics.
Manchin wins on charm, passion, work ethic and the ability to carve out reasonably safe centrist positions.
He was well-suited as the state’s Governor. He ran the state as though he were the mayor of a medium sized city, with a hands-on approach to solving problems that was more about the exercise of power than adherence to any particular political philosophy.
Manchin was his own political party.
Washington, however, is a different beast, and one that appears to be a difficult adjustment for the Senator.
On Monday, three days after the Newtown massacre, Manchin appeared first on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” where he implied he was open to more gun control.
“I don’t know anyone in the hunting or sporting arena that goes out with an assault rifle,” Manchin said. “I don’t know anybody that needs 30 rounds in the clip to go hunting. These are things that need to be talked about.”
Manchin made similar comments later in the morning on my show, Metronews Talkline.
It became national news. Manchin, a conservative Democrat from a pro-gun state with an “A” rating from the NRA, was open to more gun laws. The Senator who famously shot a bullet into cap-and-trade legislation in a campaign ad was ready to talk about gun control.
The Senator’s comments earned him praise from many circles, especially liberal ones, but also produced howls of protest from conservative gun owners in his home state, of which there are tens of thousands.
“So the election’s over and the REAL Joe Manchin is coming out,” wrote one e-mailer. “If Manchin doesn’t know the people who own semi-automatic firearms, then he doesn’t know his constituents,” wrote another.
By Wednesday, Manchin was walking back his comments. On Talkline, he heaped praise on the NRA, said he opposed a renewal of the 1994 assault weapons ban, and indicated he had problems with Senator Diane Feinstein’s proposed gun control legislation.
Manchin says nothing changed, although he did admit to being more “articulate” about his position on Wednesday than Monday. And he added that his goal all along has been to have a national dialog about all the contributors to gun violence.
“I’m not supporting a ban on anything,” Manchin told me. “I’m supporting a conversation on everything.”
I suspect Manchin did get stung by the negative reaction and is now trying to move back to a safer position. During his days as Governor, that would have been easy enough. He used the force of his personality to tamp down most controversies and missteps.
Washington is not nearly as forgiving. That city is driven more by rigid partisanship and crafted sound bites. Manchin would rather bring his style to Washington than bend to the beltway’s rules.
In Manchin’s world, all the interested parties get in a room and hammer out a deal. He practiced that as Governor—with him naturally occupying the biggest chair in the room–and he wants to do that in Washington, whether it’s on gun control, the budget or any other issue.
But as Manchin found out this week, just getting the conversation going in Washington, especially on a volatile issue, is rife with political risk.