Joe Manchin’s Politically Perilous Middle Way

Joe Manchin has a political conundrum.

He faces consistent headwinds as the only statewide elected Democrat in a deeply red state.  He had to campaign his tail off in 2018 to retain his Senate seat against Republican Attorney General Patrick Morrisey to squeak out a win—49.6 percent to 46 percent.

Notably, Manchin’s numbers have risen since then.

A Morning Consult poll last April found that 57 percent of West Virginia voters approve of his job performance, and a just-released poll by the Republican-led Coalition for a Stronger West Virginia, shows that 56 percent of West Virginia voters either strongly approve or somewhat approve of the job he is doing.

That rise is due in large part to his opposition to President Biden’s $2 trillion Build Back Better plan. Progressives and environmentalists have spent months excoriating Manchin. But the more the left pounds Manchin, the better he fares with the right.

The Coalition poll found that a whopping 69 percent say Manchin did the right thing by opposing the legislation.* However, that same poll found that 58 percent of West Virginia voters were less likely to vote for Joe Manchin if he supported a new compromise spending bill.**

And that’s what just happened.

Wednesday night, Manchin and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer announced an agreement on a dramatically scaled down version of Build Back Better that raises $739 billion in revenue and includes $433 billion in spending, while dedicating $300 billion to deficit reduction.

The bill imposes a minimum 15 percent tax on corporations and allows Medicare to negotiate drug prices with pharmaceutical companies, while investing $369 billion for energy and climate change mitigation and $64 billion to continue subsidies for health insurance premiums under Obamacare.

Manchin appeared on Talkline Thursday morning to explain his support for the bill. As he spoke, the texts started rolling in from listeners furious with Manchin. One wrote, “He caved to the liberal agenda again.” Another said Manchin, “caved to climate change liberals.”

So Manchin was doing fine as long as he was viewed as opposing Biden and the Democratic agenda, but the moment he struck a deal, that grudging support dissipated. Nationally, Manchin has been transformed from a conservative pariah by the left to a liberal enabler by the right.

Interestingly, I don’t think Manchin has moved one way or another. His positions on inflation and the debt have been consistent, while his views on energy policy have been a more nuanced all-of-the-above approach.

But during this time of tribal politics, there is rarely a middle way on the biggest issues. There are only entrenched positions and a wall of separation. Manchin has consistently sought a reasonable seat atop that wall, only to find that it makes him an easy target from both sides.

*(The poll question said the Build Back Better plan totaled $4.8 trillion. By the time Manchin announced his opposition, the total was down to under $2 trillion.)

**(The poll question asked if Manchin should support or oppose a spending bill that includes “tax increases on individuals, small businesses and local employers.”)





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