Here’s the thing about red state Democratic Senator Joe Manchin: I don’t like how he voted on Brett Kavanaugh, and clearly, neither do most Democrats and liberals around the nation. But the circumstances of his vote are being wildly and fundamentally misunderstood as they relate to politics. In fact there was never any way that Manchin was going to cast the deciding vote for Kavanaugh, because that’s never how he operates. Before finalizing your opinion of Manchin’s vote, it’s important to understand why he did what he did.
If the GOP had the votes to confirm Kavanaugh, then Manchin could score points back on home in West Virginia by casting his own meaningless “yes” vote. If the GOP did not have the votes for Kavanaugh, then Manchin would have voted “no.” He was never, ever going to be the deciding “yes” vote. How do I know this? Because he never is.
West Virginia is one of the reddest states in the nation. It’s not simply “red” like Texas, or Tennessee, or Arizona, where strong liberal Democratic candidates for Senate are faring pretty well in their efforts to oust conservative Republicans Senators. No, West Virginia is a different beast. It’s not just red – its deep red. It’s so red that, at the state level, the Democrats are straight up moderates, and the Republicans are conservative extremists. There are pockets of liberalism in certain regions of the state – I’m using broad strokes here to make my point – but at the state level, Joe Manchin is the closest thing to a liberal that West Virginia is capable of electing to the Senate.
For that reason, in order to have any chance of getting reelected, Manchin has to vote with both parties, so he can go home to his red state constituents and honestly tell them that he’s bipartisan. The part he glosses over is that every time Manchin is in position to be the deciding Senate vote, he always goes with the Democrats. He only sometimes strategically votes with the Republicans in instances where it’s not going to be decided by one vote anyway. Again, this is what it currently takes for a Democratic Senator to get elected and stay elected in West Virginia, and if you don’t like it, the only way to change it would be to move there and try to change the culture.
You can look this up for yourself. Joe Manchin has managed to sneak in a bunch of votes with the GOP without altering anything. He wasn’t the reason that any of Donald Trump’s cabinet members were confirmed. Manchin voted to save Obamacare, because it was decided by one vote. Manchin voted against last year’s tax scam bill. You can’t point to a vote where he’s screwed the Democrats, because he hasn’t. He votes the other way when it doesn’t count. It’s cynical, but smart – and in terms of things passing or not passing the Senate, entirely harmless.
You may view this Supreme Court vote as a different matter, based on principle alone, simply because Brett Kavanaugh is an unhinged monster. Fair enough. But it’s important to understand a few things here. First, if Susan Collins had gotten up there and said she was voting “no” on Kavanaugh, then Manchin would have done the same. Second, if the Democrats retake the Senate, they have a plausible shot at ousting Kavanaugh as a criminal matter. In that sense, Manchin arguably did more good for the Democrats by protecting his own reelection odds, thus boosting the odds of the Democrats retaking the Senate, than if he had risked losing reelection by casting a meaningless “no” vote.
I’m as dissatisfied with Joe Manchin as you are. I believe he owes an apology to women everywhere for this vote. But here’s the cold hard reality: the two choices coming out of West Virginia are an infuriating moderate like Manchin who will often vote against us but never cast a deciding vote against us, and a far-right hardline pro-Trump Republican who will definitely cast deciding votes against us. There is no magic third option. If you find both these choices unacceptable, I’m with you. But if you can’t see the difference between the two choices, and the value for the Democrats in having a reliable Senate vote from a red state every time they need him to be the deciding vote, then you’ve lost me.
The worst case scenario for the Democrats in November is that they win races in states like Texas and Arizona, but they end up losing control of the Senate as a result of liberal backlash shifting the West Virginia race from Joe Manchin to his far-right Republican opponent. This is unlikely, as voters in West Virginia don’t care all that much about what liberals around the nation say about their Senate race. But I’ve even heard misguided liberals around the nation talking about donating money to Manchin’s extremist pro-Trump Republican opponent, just to teach Manchin a lesson. This would be self defeating to the point of inexcusability.
I’ll add one more tidbit to the equation. It’s highly doubtful that Joe Manchin would have decided to cast a meaningless “yes” vote for Brett Kavanaugh unless Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer gave him his blessing. Schumer, like Manchin, understands how politics works. They know that it doesn’t matter if you lose a vote 51-49 or 52-48. And again, Manchin votes with the Democrats whenever he’s the deciding vote. That doesn’t change, no matter how many angry social media posts mis-state his voting record in the name of punishing him. In any case, Manchin isn’t among the hundred biggest issues the Resistance is facing right now. Do we want to punish this guy for casting a symbolic vote and gain nothing in the process, or do we want to have a chance to win the next battle?
Bill Palmer is the publisher of the political news outlet Palmer Report