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Home U.S Analysis: Don't feel bad for Joe Manchin

Analysis: Don’t feel bad for Joe Manchin

“It’s a shame,” Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia, told CNN on Wednesday when asked about his ability to control the Senate. “There are 49 other Democrats. Please come forward. … It’s not good. It’s not a good place to be.”
So, we are supposed to believe that Manchin really wishes that he didn’t have the ability to personally decide the fate of President Joe Biden’s Cabinet nominees (“yes” to Xavier Becerra at Health and Human Services, “no” to Neera Tanden at the Office of Management and Budget, for example)? And that the relentless courting he drew after holding up the Covid-19 stimulus bill over a debate on unemployment insurance was not to his liking?

If true, he’s the first person in human history to a) not like attention and b) not like getting what he wants.

While there’s no question that Manchin might wish that there was more of what he would term a sensible center of the Senate, it’s extremely hard for me to believe that him being, without question, the single most important senator in the chamber is somehow keeping him up at night.

In fact, Manchin’s current positioning is not only good for him to get what he wants in Washington but also helpful to his image back in West Virginia, where being a Democrat in statewide office is a rarity. (Donald Trump won the Mountain State by almost 40 points in 2020.)

Manchin can credibly tell voters in his home state that he is at the center, ideologically and literally, of the Senate — making decisions less based on what his party leaders say to do and more on what he believes is right for the state.

That said, there is no question that the so-called moderate wings of both parties have shrunk considerably in recent years.

Judging by vote scores by VoteView of the 116th Congress, the middle for both parties is functionally nonexistent — occupied by Manchin and Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema among Democrats and Maine Sen. Susan Collins for Republicans. (Alabama Democratic Sen. Doug Jones was among the most moderate Democrats, but he was crushed by Sen. Tommy Tuberville, an unapologetic Trumper, in the 2020 election.)
The image is stark. All the red dots in the VoteView voting map are clustered on the right. All the blue dots on the left. And in the middle? A giant white space where no senators — or very few — dare to go.

Now use the VoteView tracker to go back 20 years to the 106th Congress, which was in session from 1999-2001. The change in the picture is striking. The middle is far more crowded — with everyone from Republican Sens. Jim Jeffords (Vermont) and Lincoln Chafee (Rhode Island) to Democratic Sens. John Breaux (Louisiana) and Evan Bayh (Indiana). Almost no senators occupy the extremes, in either party.

So, Manchin is right. The political middle — in the Senate and in America — has largely disappeared. We have, collectively, retreated to our political corners — looking more like the British parliamentary system. Consider this: Of the 35 Senate seats up in 2020, only one senator — Collins in Maine — won election (or reelection) in a state won by the presidential candidate of the other party. (Collins won by almost 9 points even while Biden was winning the state by 9 points.)

But cast me as very skeptical that Manchin really believes that his current status as the Senate’s swing vote is a “shame.” Or anything but a massive boon for his policy and political fortunes.

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