Joe Manchin is everybody’s least favorite Democratic Senator. He represents the deeply red state of West Virginia, so he votes against the Democrats something like a quarter of the time. That way he can go home and tell his conservative constituents that he’s not beholden to the Democrats, and they keep reelecting him accordingly.
But he literally never casts a deciding vote against the Democrats; instead he always makes a point of voting against them when his one vote isn’t going to change the outcome anyway. That’s why it was so head scratching when Manchin announced on Friday that he opposed President Biden’s OMB Neera Tanden, for the flimsy reason that she sent some mean tweets in years past.
If Manchin was opposing Tanden, then according to his career-long pattern, he must have known that it was because he wasn’t going to be the deciding vote on her anyway. But did that mean that he knew at least one Republican was planning to vote for her, thus assuring her confirmation? Or did it mean that at least one other Democrat was planning to vote against her, meaning her confirmation was sunk anyway?
On Monday, Republican Senators Susan Collins and Mitt Romney both announced that they opposed Tanden’s nomination, while no additional Democratic Senators came out against her. If this does mean that Joe Manchin is the deciding vote on Tanden, and he’s voting no, then it would represent a fundamental shift in his approach to voting. It would mean he’s finally decided to alienate the Senate Democratic caucus, which surely won’t work in his favor when he ends up having to ask the caucus to make his preferred changes to future legislation that he knows he’ll to vote for anyway.
But Manchin has always been savvier than that. It’s why he manages to survive as a Democrat representing a red state. None of this is to defend him; his statement about Tanden was hypocritical and frankly idiotic. It’s just that whenever he’s said hypocritical and idiotic things in the past, it’s never been accompanied by a deciding vote against the Democrats.
So what’s really going on here? It could be that Manchin has simply lost his marbles. But what if this just part of his ongoing strategy of only voting against the Democrats when it won’t affect the outcome? It’s notable that while Collins and Romney announced their decisions today, their fellow swing vote triplet Lisa Murkowski made no such announcement. Does Manchin already know that Murkowski is planning to support Tanden?
It’s also worth pointing out that Bernie Sanders, who was the target of many of Tanden’s mean tweets in years past, is still publicly undecided on whether to vote to confirm her. If Manchin knows that Sanders is planning to vote against her, then Manchin wouldn’t be impacting the outcome by also voting against her.
It’s also possible that Manchin is merely floating his “no” vote as a way of appearing independent from the Democratic Party, and that he’s not necessarily planning to stick to it. He has a habit of doing this. For instance, Manchin publicly suggested that he had no interest in doing another round of stimulus checks, but after he got bad press on it for a few days, he claimed he merely meant it wasn’t his personal priority, and now he’s in support of it. If we apply enough public pressure on Manchin this week, he could end up suddenly announcing that what he really meant was that he merely opposed Tanden’s tweets, and that he never meant he wasn’t voting for her.
One thing to keep in mind is that while Joe Manchin kind of sucks, it would be literally impossible to get a more liberal Democratic Senator elected in a deeply red state like West Virginia. If he were successfully primaried from the left, it would merely result in a 100% chance that he’d end up replaced with a far right Republican Senator along the lines of Ted Cruz. Much as you might rightly despise Manchin, everyone can acknowledge that replacing him with a far right Republican who would vote against the Democrats every single time would be far worse.
If you want to make Joe Manchin more powerless, the answer is fairly straightforward: work hard and get additional Democratic Senators elected in swing states in 2022 (Wisconsin comes to mind), so that Manchin won’t be the 50th Democratic Senator. Instead he’ll be the 51st or 52nd Democratic Senator, making his vote irrelevant.
All that said, there is still solid reason to suspect that, one way or the other, Manchin is not going to be the deciding vote in the Neera Tanden confirmation. We only say that because he’s made a career long habit of making sure he’s not the deciding vote against the Democrats. Keep in mind there’s always more going on behind the scenes than we know about at any given moment.
Bill Palmer is the publisher of the political news outlet Palmer Report