Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders went after West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin recently in an opinion piece published in the Charleston Gazette-Mail.
Sanders, employing his predictable “greedy rich vs. the helpless poor” rhetoric, tried to shame Manchin into backing the $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation bill. The legislation would dramatically expand the social welfare system in this country, while using billions in taxpayer dollars to incentivize alternative energy.
As the Wall Street Journal’s conservative columnist William McGurn asked rhetorically, “If you were a Democrat appealing to the good people of West Virginia, is Bernie Sanders the guy you’d want making your pitch?”
Manchin’s first instinct is to get along, find common ground and see where there is a deal to be done. But he did not take kindly to Sanders going on the offensive in his home state newspaper.
“This isn’t the first time an out-of-stater has tried to tell West Virginians what is best for them despite having no relationship to our state,” Manchin responded. (The Senator knows well our parochial nature, and clearly is not above using it when necessary.)
In fairness, Sanders is not exactly an unknown quantity here. Sanders campaigned in West Virginia during his 2016 bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. He easily outdistanced eventual nominee Hillary Clinton 51 percent to 36 percent in the Primary Election.
When you come to one of the most economically depressed areas of the state—Sanders’ town hall meeting was in Kimball in McDowell County—and give an impassioned speech about income inequality, it strikes a nerve.
“When you have kids who have no hope and no opportunity, and when this takes place in the wealthiest country in the history of the world, something is fundamentally wrong,” Sanders told the audience that day.
Hundreds of thousands of West Virginians benefit from a range of federal programs and social services—Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, tax credits, rental assistance, childcare subsidies, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, Head Start, college aid, on and on.
But just don’t call it “socialism.” West Virginia is a conservative state that voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump, and Sanders is a socialist. Manchin was quick to point that out in his response to Sanders. “No op-ed from a self-declared Independent Socialist,” Manchin said in a statement.
Manchin knows his state, and he has been successful at charting a middle ground, which is increasingly difficult in today’s polarized political environment. The state’s progressives fantasize about replacing him, but that is a fool’s errand.
Sanders’ venture into Manchin territory changed nothing in the ongoing budget discussions, except to irritate the very person holding the strongest hand. If Sanders were more realistic, he would meet Manchin where he is pliable—at the negotiating table where a compromise could be reached.