Conservative Democrat Joe Manchin playing a dangerous game
W.Va. Sen. Joe Manchin at a recent event hosted by the conservative Democratic think tank Third Way. The organization is a successor to the old DLC, home of right-wing Democrats. | via Third Way

The press is talking about how a conservative Democratic senator from West Virginia is now allegedly one of the most powerful movers and shakers in the nation’s capital.

Sen. Joe Manchin has been an enormous headache for President Joe Biden by threatening to sink the $15 minimum wage and by promising to vote down Biden’s nomination of Neera Tanden for head of the Office of Management and Budget.

By sinking a Biden cabinet nominee and opposing progressive policies in the administration’s national rescue plan, Manchin has made it easier for unscrupulous so-called moderates in the GOP to come out and join the fight to halt progress on numerous major fronts.

Susan Collins, the Republican senator from Maine, has already announced that she, like Manchin, has “problems” with the Tanden nomination because of the latter’s allegedly harsh rhetoric against right-wing Republicans.

It’s the same position taken by right-wing Louisiana GOP Sen. John Kennedy, who laments not just Tanden’s Twitter attacks on his fellow Republicans but cries crocodile tears also over her tweets against Sen. Bernie Sanders when she was a leader of the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign.

All of the Senate hypocrites—Manchin, Collins, and Kennedy included—had no problem backing Trump cabinet nominees who not only issued floods of nasty tweets but were also blatantly unqualified to serve in their positions. Manchin rarely criticized Trump for the tweets he issued, including those that helped lead to the deadly insurrection Jan. 6 at the Capitol.

What gives Manchin and other so-called “moderate” Democratic senators like Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona so much potential clout to use against enactment of progressive programs is the 50-50 split in the Senate, which leaves no room for even one Democratic defection. Any such defection can only be solved if a Republican can be found to replace the rogue Democrat.

The situation allows a handful of so-called “moderates” to outweigh the large progressive caucus in the Senate—a caucus that reflects the views of the overwhelming majority of the Democratic base.

“Each and every one of these (conservative Democratic) members has the ability to be the king- or queen-maker on Capitol Hill,” Jim Manley, a longtime aide to former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, told the press recently. “If they stick together, and flex their muscles—especially given the tight margins in both the House and the Senate—they can have a real impact.”

Biden, of course, was not the first choice of progressive Democrats during the primaries. Many felt he would not embrace strong positions on a wide range of issues, including health care, criminal justice, climate change, and others.

It turned out that he did embrace these issues and the Democratic Party platform he ran on was the most progressive in the party’s history. He has so far won praise and approval from progressives during the first month of his administration on many fronts, though not all—such as on student loans. The problem he has had is not with progressives, but with the so-called moderates like Manchin.

Manchin is indeed creating headaches for Biden but what he is doing is much worse than just that.

He already has all but sunk the nomination of Tanden for the OMB position. He is also making noise that he may oppose Biden’s nomination of Vivek Murphy to the post of Surgeon General. He opposed Murphy when President Barack Obama nominated him for that position in 2014 as well. Looking to explain why critics have pointed to the fact that Manchin has received hefty contributions from people tied to the pharmaceutical and for-profit hospital industries. He does not take contributions from those industries directly but rather from individuals employed by them—“bundlers” who make it look like he gets his money from individuals rather than from corporations.

Murphy is not the only leading person of color attacked by Manchin. He went after Vice President Kamala Harris last week, claiming that in an interview Harris did with a local West Virginia TV station she was attempting to put pressure on him to support the president’s COVID-19 rescue bill.

Manchin is receiving pressure for his caving in to the right wing, but it’s coming from his own constituents who have protested against his opposition to raising the minimum wage and who recently joined the Rev. William Barber’s Poor People’s Campaign against Manchin’s attacks on the wage hike.

Manchin is one of a tiny handful of Democratic senators who have called into question Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan bill, the national rescue package the administration is pushing. The message Manchin is sending is that unless Biden makes some as yet unspecified concessions, he could sink the entire bill.

The threats have to be taken seriously because two other Democratic senators, Sinema of Arizona and John Tester of Montana, have openly called for “more targeted aid” than what Biden has laid out in his bill.

They have joined with several criticizing the provision for $1,400 stimulus checks for most Americans. They want to exclude people whom they describe as “better off” workers.

“The challenge here is, I don’t want to do too much, and I don’t want to do too little,” Tester has said publicly. “I want to make sure it’s targeted and justified.”

Sinema also opposes Biden’s proposal to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour.

There is a good chance that the minimum wage hike will be removed from the bill even if the Senate parliamentarian says it can be included under budget reconciliation.

The position of Manchin and the so-called “moderate” Democrats boggles the mind. What they have done so far is endangering Biden’s top legislative priority. If the Biden bill fails, the gates are open for the Republicans to make a comeback in the mid-term elections in 2022. The right wingers will blame the Democrats for failing to end the COVID-19 crisis and failing to pull the country out of economic depression.

In addition to using their numbers to sink the legislation so desperately needed at this time, these “moderates” in the Democratic Party stand ready to kill efforts to end the Senate filibuster. The filibuster will have to be eliminated if there is any hope for enactment of the legislation needed to solve almost every problem facing the nation.

Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota was calling Manchin on the carpet for this back in November already when she castigated him at the time for saying the filibuster was needed so the Senate could remain a “deliberative institution that builds bi-partisanship.”

“Get real,” Omar said at the time, “the filibuster is an impediment to progress and democracy.” She noted that progressive Democrats, not the so-called moderates, were charting the path forward for the Democratic Party.

The fight to win the two Georgia Senate seats for the Democrats was indeed led by progressives who came from all over the country to support the campaigns there and thereby take the Senate for the Democrats.

Maintaining the filibuster, as Manchin proposes, could undo the 2020 election victory in its entirety. So-called moderates like him can be expected to leverage the coming 2022 elections to their advantage. Expect them to argue that the progressives will need to step back if the party is to defend and grow its majorities in the coming vote.

What happened in Georgia this year proves, of course, the falsehood of this idea. Democrats taking strong progressive positions win their elections. Democrats who take Republican positions pave the way for a resurgence of Republicans and the right wing generally.

As with all op-eds published by People’s World, this article reflects the opinions of its author.


John Wojcik
John Wojcik

John Wojcik is Editor-in-Chief of People's World. He joined the staff as Labor Editor in May 2007 after working as a union meat cutter in northern New Jersey. There, he served as a shop steward and a member of a UFCW contract negotiating committee. In the 1970s and '80s, he was a political action reporter for the Daily World, this newspaper's predecessor, and was active in electoral politics in Brooklyn, New York.