Please, Joe Manchin, Get with the Program

The West Virginia Senator is blowing his chance to be a true leader.

Take, for example, his initial opposition to the COVID relief package. As Bob Woodward and Robert Costa document in their new book, Peril, Manchin was concerned that the package as initially proposed would incentivize people not to work. When I read this, I had to do a double-take to make sure that I wasn’t reading about a Republican, given that this is one of their key talking points when it comes to anything that helps to lift people out of poverty or give them assistance when they badly need it. Nope, instead it’s coming from the man who has been hailed as one of the most powerful people in the Senate, single-handedly capable of tanking his own party’s domestic agenda if it suits him to do so.

What I find especially frustrating about Manchin’s continuing recalcitrance is that it doesn’t even make political sense according to his own terms. Yes, he comes from one of the Trumpiest states in the nation but, and this might come as something of a shock, it’s also the poorest. Meaning, of course, that it would be one of the states that could benefit the most from major investment from the federal government.

Let’s start with infrastructure. If you’ve spent any amount of time in West Virginia, you know that its infrastructure is, to put it bluntly, shit. There are a number of reasons for this, but most of them can be traced in one way or another to the fossil fuel industries that have exploited the state for decades and show no signs of abating anytime soon. Not only do massive coal and oil and gas trucks wreak havoc on roads, the industries in question have spent decades making sure that enormous amounts of money flows right into the pockets of their pet legislators. Add in the fact that they’ve also managed to create a state Supreme Court in their own image, and you have a perfect recipe for disaster. One need look no further than the huge water crisis of a few years ago to see just how bad things can get in a state where regulation of any kind is a bad word and where there is no infrastructure investment to help defray the significant costs created from fossil fuel extraction.

Then there’s the social spending package. For several decades now, West Virginia has ranked near the bottom in all sorts of rankings when it comes to health and well-being. In fact, it’s become something of a running joke for many, including my parents, to say at least not one of the states that are worse off, like Mississippi or Alabama. It’s not that the state’s plight is actually humorous, of course. Instead, it’s more the fact that, if there’s nothing you can really do to change the course of events, you might as well react with a certain form of gallows humor.

More to the point, the population of West Virginia is a rapidly aging one, and it’s one of the only states to lose population over the last 10 years. It’s not hard to see how this is going to affect the lives of its citizens going forward. With fewer and fewer young people moving in — despite the state’s much-publicized efforts to draw in new talent with a variety of incentive programs (which have come in for their own well-deserved criticism) — it’s going to become quite an issue finding enough people, especially qualified people, to take care of the the elderly.

And, of course, it’s also worth pointing out that other programs that Biden has proposed, including paid family leave, would also benefit West Virginians, because it will certainly help alleviate the pressures that are inordinately felt by the working poor. It will come as no surprise to you that there are quite a few of those in West Virginia as well. I’m sure they would like to know that their Senator has their best interests at heart, but his disingenuous claims that he’s wary of supporting legislation that incentivizes people not to work must ring awfully hollow to those who are struggling desperately to make ends meet while also raising a family.

And, of course, it’s also worth pointing out that other programs that Biden has proposed, including paid family leave, would also benefit West Virginians, because it will certainly help alleviate the pressures that are inordinately felt by the working poor. It will come as no surprise to you that there are quite a few of those in West Virginia as well. I’m sure they would like to know that their Senator has their best interests at heart, but his disingenuous claims that he’s wary of supporting legislation that incentivizes people not to work must ring awfully hollow to those who are struggling desperately to make ends meet while also raising a family.

What I find especially galling about Manchin’s continued intransigence is how short-sighted it ultimately is. Part of the struggle that every politician faces is the elaborate juggling act between representing your constituents’ interests and desires and doing what you know to be right for them. Every elected representative knows that all it takes is one wrong move, one unpopular piece of legislation, and they’ll lose in the next election cycle, shut out of the halls of power that they enjoy so much. Manchin is, at the end of the day, a politician like any other, and so it’s easy to see the calculations that is constantly making to ensure that he stays in power. However, at some point he’s got to realize that he has the opportunity to really do something for the people of West Virginia, in the way that Robert C. Byrd did throughout his tenure in that august body. Say what you will about the late Byrd (and he was hardly a saint), but he really did make sure that a significant amount of money flowed into his home state, bringing it into the 20th Century. He understood that his job was to help his state become a competitor in the nation rather than the butt of every joke, and while he may not have succeeded as much as he would have liked, he still did a lot of good.

Manchin, on the other hand, seems to have allowed his newly-minted position of “most powerful man in the Senate” to go to his head. That wouldn’t be so bad, if he actually did something useful with his power, but as it is he is largely a speed-bump, earning himself the opprobrium of progressives (and, believe it or not, there are some of those in WV, too) and even some moderates in his own party. Far from a leader, he’s become yet another example of Washington egotism run amuck.

I earnestly hope that someday, in the future, Joe Manchin realizes that he actually owes something to the people who have continued to put their faith to him. It might also occur to him that he can both satisfy their desire that he be the sort of maverick politician that he aspires to be and vote for the sorts of legislation that will do the most good for those who live there. Unfortunately, if past is prologue, I have to say that I don’t have a lot of confidence in this ever happening. If Manchin refuses to change how he does business in Washington, I fear there’s a very real chance that Biden’s domestic agenda could founder on the rocks of his own party. If that is the case, then Manchin might also have the dubious distinction of being the man who tanked his party’s chances of maintaining their hold on power in the mid-terms. Let’s just hope he doesn’t go down this route.