Senator Joe Manchin (D., W.Va.) famously shot a bullet through a piece of climate-change legislation in a campaign ad, and these days guns are putting him back in the headlines. But all the attention he’s getting on Capitol Hill isn’t translating into political power.
Instead, Manchin is a so-called centrist whom Senate Democrats love to tout, but whom they rarely follow — because despite his carefully nurtured reputation as a “no labels” pragmatist, at the end of the day he tends to fall in line with his party’s leaders.
“He’s always the first senator to say he’s willing to work across the aisle, but at the end of the day nothing ever happens,” a conservative GOP aide tells National Review Online. “I’m sure Republicans appreciate being able to sit down with a Democrat without feeling like they’re being attacked, but it’s not like he has any leverage with Democratic leadership.”
Manchin, a former governor, has maintained a markedly low profile since coming to Congress in late 2010, but he has recently emerged in the political press as a key player in the rapidly decelerating debate over gun control. The attention is the culmination of a wave of stories that started late last year, when the national media noticed that “even Joe Manchin,” who has an A rating from the National Rifle Association, was “talking about gun control.”
Yet even then, though he was talking about gun control, he wasn’t necessarily saying much. “It’s time to move beyond rhetoric. We need to sit down and have a common-sense discussion and move in a reasonable way,” he said during a December 17 appearance on MSNBC’s Morning Joe. “Everything should be on the table.”
This spring, with Manchin fresh off a convincing reelection victory, his renewed willingness to discuss the issue was enough to produce more favorable headlines, such as “Manchin NRA A-Rating Gives Cover for Gun-Control Dialogue,” even as he was starting to catch political flak back home. “It’s all for the headlines,” notes the conservative aide.
Recently, Manchin has been much less willing to talk about guns. Last month he agreed to be interviewed by a local newspaper under the condition that no questions about gun control or the Second Amendment would be asked.
But Manchin continues to work behind the scenes, having teamed up with Republican colleague Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania in an effort to find a compromise on legislation to expand federal background checks for gun buyers. However, prospects for reaching such an agreement are low, Senate sources says.
Republicans suspect that Manchin’s public entrance into the debate was purely political, done at the behest of Democratic leaders eager to put forward a “credible” spokesman on gun control. “By rolling him out to talk about gun control, they can act like they care about the Second Amendment,” says a GOP aide. But Manchin’s talk was never considered a serious overture. Senate insiders argue that the move would be in perfect keeping with Manchin’s habit of doing the bidding of Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) on major issues, even as he touts his reputation as a centrist consensus builder.
“He is a garden-variety politician — check in with the leader, walk the party line as much as you can without burning yourself back home,” the aide says. “He’s never hesitated to cozy up to the power centers of the Democratic party.”
Conrad Lucas, chairman of the Republican party of West Virginia, who describes Manchin as a “pretty irrelevant United States senator,” suggests two possible explanations. “Either he is showing his true colors” by speaking out on gun control, or else he is “simply trying to suck up and gain favor with the powers that be in the Democratic party,” Lucas says. “And when you’re sucking up to Harry Reid and Barack Obama, you are spitting in the face of West Virginians.”
That’s the looming Manchin question: Is he signaling moderation on guns in order to win liberals’ admiration, or is this self-styled moderate actually a liberal?
Since joining the Senate, Manchin has walked a fine line politically, supporting (or declining to oppose) the Reid-Obama agenda while avoiding significant backlash in a state that voted 62 percent for Mitt Romney in 2012. That same year, Manchin was reelected with 61 percent of the vote. A fresh six-year term, aides note, gives him the flexibility to speak out on gun control, whereas red-state Democrats facing reelection in 2014 have been silent.
Manchin, who in January was recognized as a “national leader” for the No Labels movement, has accumulated one of the most distinctive voting records in the Senate. In some cases, his support for Obama’s policies is unequivocal; he voted for the so-called Buffett Rule, a proposed tax on millionaires that failed in the Senate in April 2012. “We need to put fairness back in the tax system to get this country on solid ground again,” Manchin said at the time. He also supported the Democratic bill to replace sequestration in February, a plan the White House had endorsed.
Sometimes Manchin’s support is more nuanced. When Obama’s $500 billion American Jobs Act came to the floor in the fall of 2011, he voted in favor of ending debate on the bill, but said he would vote against final passage. However, because the initial vote was unsuccessful (a predestined outcome), he never got the chance to follow through.
But Manchin’s signature move is still the good old-fashioned no-show. He began his Senate career by missing a series of high-profile votes — on the DREAM Act and repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” — in December 2010, telling reporters he had a “holiday gathering” with family that he couldn’t get out of. More recently, he was the only senator who abstained from a vote on a measure to fully repeal Obamacare. Manchin had previously voted against Obamacare repeal in February 2011, a move that cost him the endorsements of a number of pro-life organizations.
West Virginia sources say Manchin’s considerable personal charm has allowed him to avoid serious blowback over his erratic voting behavior in Washington. A popular governor from a political family, he has lived up to the old saying that “everything in West Virginia is political except for politics, which is personal.” But Lucas argues that Manchin will not be able to survive on charm alone forever. “He was perceived as a conservative before actually having to vote on issues,” the Republican says. “All he’s doing is building an incredibly liberal record that he’ll have to run on in 2018.”
Rumors abound that Manchin might not make it that far; he is believed to be unhappy in the Senate, and possibly contemplating a return to West Virginia to run for governor again in 2016. Known on Capitol Hill for his reluctance to speak with reporters, particularly on high-profile issues, Manchin is said to be extremely sensitive to criticism, even to the point of calling up the West Virginia GOP offices to complain about disparaging press releases. “It’s pretty bizarre for a politician to take offense to being criticized by people whose sole job it is to criticize you,” Lucas says.
Whether or not Manchin can ultimately help forge a compromise on gun-control legislation, Republicans are confident that his Senate career will be brief and forgettable. “If you ask 100 Senate staffers about their impression of Joe Manchin, 99 of them will probably say ‘he’s tall,’” an aide says of the towering lawmaker. “When he shows up ten years from now as a former senator, nobody will remember he was here.”
— Andrew Stiles is a political reporter for NRO.