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Unlocking the Manchin Vote

The central question is: What makes Manchin tick?

Few challenges have been more vexing for the Democratic Party of the 117th Congress than unlocking Sen. Joe Manchin’s vote for progressive legislation. From casting the 50th vote for last spring’s $1.9T emergency COVID funding to blowing up the Build Back Better Act in December, Manchin has repeatedly been the deciding factor in whether a bill lives or dies in Congress. With a threadbare majority in the Senate and a severely conservative GOP, there isn’t a pathway for progressive legislation in 2022 that doesn’t go directly through Joe Manchin.

This is especially the case for legislation to protect democracy. The GOP is largely divided between those who want to restrict voting access and those interested in setting up infrastructure to overturn election outcomes they dislike, so Dems are exceedingly unlikely to find a Republican to do what Manchin will not. (No, not even Romney.) Plus with midterms approaching, Democrats can count on even fewer votes next year. If Congress does nothing on this issue now, it may not be able to reverse course later.

Put this all together and we are left with a supremely dissatisfying situation: We have less than a year to unlock Manchin’s vote to protect democracy. We may hope for a better hand, but in the meantime, we need to play the one we’ve been dealt. Democracy might just depend on it.

How Not to Unlock Manchin’s Vote

“They figure surely to God we can move one person. Surely, we can badger and beat one person up… Well, guess what? I’m from West Virginia. I’m not from where they’re from, [where] they can just beat the living crap out of people and think they’ll be submissive.” — Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), West Virginia MetroNews, December 20, 2021

If Manchin is an unavoidably critical part of protecting democracy in 2022, it’s worth asking how well progressives have harnessed his vote so far. My answer? Ehhh… maybe not super well. We can see this in two case studies from 2021: the For the People Act and the Build Back Better Act.

For those of you who haven’t heard of it, the For the People Act was a sweeping democracy reform package that included provisions to expand voting rights, end partisan gerrymandering, regulate campaign finance, and create new ethics oversight for federal officeholders. Despite being co-sponsored by nearly all Congressional Democrats (except Joe Manchin), framed as congressional Democrats’ signature piece of legislation, and its provisions being widely supported by the public, the For the People Act died a slow and quiet death over the first six months of 2021, eventually succumbing to a fatal case of filibuster-itis last June.

We all know how the Build Back Better Act ended.

Are there any similarities between these two examples? For each bill, Manchin’s vote was required for its passage, Manchin was engaged for over six months, Manchin remained consistently noncommittal or even committed to not vote for them in their proposed forms, and Manchin received lots and lots of external pressure without seriously aligning the legislation with his interests as he understands them. It is on this last item that we need to take some time because I think it really is key.

What do I mean by “not aligning with his interests as he understands them”? Consider some of the tactics employed to sway his vote:

  • Holding interminable symbolic votes to teach Manchin Republicans aren’t persuadable
  • Castigating Manchin in press releases (“Negotiations deteriorated quickly in December after a White House news release named Manchin as the obstacle to passing the legislation…”)
  • Protesting Manchin at his home
  • Publicly asserting being more in tune with Manchin’s constituents than he is (Manchin is clearly not listening to the people in his state)
  • Plain old wishful thinking sans strategy (“Activists say they’ll try to fight to make sure that happens… But it’s unclear whether these activists have any leverage in dealing with Manchin… Progressives hope someone — whether that’s Schumer, President Joe Biden, or someone else — can figure out how to make Manchin move.”)

How many of these things would someone come away from thinking, “You know what? Given what I already value, I think I should vote for these bills!” This will sound really simple, but it must be stated explicitly: people won’t do something because you want them to, they’ll do it because they want to. That’s true for you and me. It’s still true for West Virginia’s Joe Manchin III, however infuriating, spineless, and unprincipled he may be.

Identifying Interests

So the unsavory but necessary job for progressives is to identify what Joe Manchin sees as being in his interests. This doesn’t mean kowtowing to his every beck and demand — there are opportunities to shape the political environment in which Manchin makes his decisions and his perceptions of that environment — but it does mean starting with an understanding of Manchin’s actual perceived interests.

The central question is: What makes Manchin tick? There are several places to look for answers:

  • Legislative History — Which kinds of bills has Manchin voted for or against in the past? Under what conditions (if any) has he made a risky vote? What are his typical patterns of engagement in legislative negotiations?
  • Personality — What kind of person is he? What are his consistent personality traits and his disposition?
  • Reputation — For which people does he seem to care what they think about him? How does he wish to be seen by those people?
  • Words — What does Joe Manchin say he wants? What does he say he cares about? On what has he spoken clearly and on what has he been noncommittal?
  • Friends — What do those who know Manchin well say and think about him? What do they say he wants?

I want to emphasize that this all really sucks. It would be supremely preferable if the Left didn’t have to worry so much about Joe Manchin. For very many reasons, Manchin is one of the least reliable Democratic votes. There may be issues on which we can find GOP Senators to be the swing vote. But the scoreboard doesn’t lie: for any legislation to pass, it needs at least 50 votes in the Senate.

A Crucial Test

No later than Monday, January 17, progressives face a crucial test of whether we’ve made headway understanding Manchin’s interests and unlocking his vote: the Senate will be voting on whether to change its rules to overcome the GOP filibuster of the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and Sen. Manchin’s own Freedom to Vote Act.

The reasons this vote is key are myriad. The vote is being held on a day of maximal pressure — its announcement was tied to January 6 vigils and the vote will coincide with Martin Luther King Jr Day events. Democratic Party leadership from Majority leader Chuck Schumer to President Biden has announced their support for amending the filibuster if that’s what it takes to pass these bills. Groups from the US Conference of Mayors (representing 146 bipartisan mayors) to Fix Our Senate (representing 80+ progressive organizations) to New America (with 100+ political scientists as signatories) have issued letters calling for filibuster reform to allow passage of the bills. Friends and former staffers alike have been connecting with Manchin to sway him on filibuster reform. Above all else, it marks less than one year remaining for Congress to do what it can with its tenuous 50 votes and block the American autocracy that knocked on our door in 2020.

Make no mistake: this will be a crucial test if ever there was one.




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Andrew McWilliams-Doty

Andrew McWilliams-Doty

Liberal Democracy Stan. MPP ’21 @ U Chicago. (Flawed) Christian.

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