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Joe Manchin Is the Poster Boy for a Doomed Centrist Politics

West Virginia senator Joe Manchin is an embodiment of centrist Democrats’ worst instincts. He says he wants to win over Republican-voting workers, but he is consistently on the wrong side of populist economic issues like a minimum wage hike that are wildly popular among those workers.

If you are for it, Joe Manchin is probably against it. (Jim Watson / Pool-Getty Images)

There has always been something particularly vexing about Joe Manchin. The West Virginia Democrat, a longtime enemy of the poorest in his own state, has perpetually frustrated anyone attempting to implement economic populism in America.

If you are for it, Manchin is probably against it. Unemployment insurance is too high, a $15 minimum wage is too generous, the stimulus checks can’t be $2,000, though that’s apparently good enough for Donald Trump. In the pockets of the oil and mining interests that have decimated the lands he represents, Manchin is a living caricature of a corroded, compromised Washington, existing to placate his richest donors.

It’s at this point when the Beltway operatives and think tank apparatchiks chime in from the sidelines: Don’t you understand what Manchin’s doing? He represents a state Trump won with almost 70 percent of the vote! He does what he needs to do to survive! Without Manchin, there is no Democratic majority, no $1.9 trillion stimulus, no chance to bolster the welfare state you big city leftists claim to care so much about.

On the surface, like most political arguments, there is a logic to this. Manchin survived reelection in 2018 in a blue wave year that nevertheless took down other centrist colleagues. It is easy to read him as a canny survivor, even a mild genius. He’s great with constituent work, apparently.

But Manchin’s got it all backward. If Democrats have any hope of winning back rural states and voters without college degrees — it’s not just working-class whites trending away from them anymore — they will need to recommit to much of the policy that the allegedly wise centrists like Manchin have scorned.

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that the neoliberals are losing. America is far away from becoming a socialist state, but it’s now a place where Larry Summers can whine about the stimulus bill being too big and get blown off entirely. Trump was a venal, right-wing president, but he managed to oversee more stimulus spending than Barack Obama ever did, sending out free money to millions of Americans. Biden, a tired centrist in the Manchin mold, has nevertheless been reactive enough to the zeitgeist to understand that the mistakes of 2009 cannot be repeated.

Democrats have created a generous childcare welfare policy that is not dependent on punishing work requirements favored by Bill Clinton and his ilk. If it becomes permanent, it has the ability to cut deeply into child poverty.

As with all welfare expansions, it can always be weakened but will be difficult to revoke entirely. Austerity-hungry Republicans know this; it’s why they fear progressive ideas so much. Social Security, despite their best efforts, was not privatized. Neither was Medicare nor Medicaid.

If Manchin wants to survive 2024, with Trump potentially on the ballot again, he will need to start promising the vast working class and poor of his state tangible gains. He will need to pump more money directly into their pockets, attempt to give them better health care, and guarantee them, in some way, access to decent-paying jobs. That was the idea behind the $15 minimum wage, a policy popular enough to pass in Florida as Trump won the state handily and Democrats were obliterated.

If a Democrat wants to survive in a state that voted overwhelmingly for Trump, they will probably have to make concessions on cultural issues that take up the most oxygen in right-wing media. Republican voters are firmly opposed to gun control and more generous immigration policy, for example, but they have no problem with the government spending more lavishly on their behalf.

Manchin has sought to appease Democrats on gun control while shrinking unemployment benefits and no-strings-attached stimulus checks. A savvier politician would likely attempt the opposite: increase the size of the check, to $2,000 or more, while ditching his goal to establish universal background checks for gun purchases. Though he would be pilloried for this posture when he ran for president, Sanders took a version of this approach in Vermont, where Republicans held far more power in his early years than they do today.

Manchin’s politics make little sense in a world where even the most outwardly conservative voters want cheaper health care, higher wages, and more cash from the government. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which sent $1,200 checks to poor and middle-class Americans alike, likely helped bolster Trump’s reelection campaign, which defied public polling that showed Biden blowing him out. The Democrats’ victory in the Georgia Senate runoffs seemed almost entirely predicated on the promise that Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock could deliver $2,000 checks to Georgians and the Republican incumbents could not.

Remarkably, Manchin has remained committed to foiling the ambitions of Ossoff and Warnock, who similarly need to worry about a Republican vote while bolstering material conditions in Georgia before tough reelection bids. Too deluded by his newfound power in the Senate, Manchin can’t seem to grasp how much he is dooming his own party. And he has no singular vision for helping those in his own state.

A Republican may wipe him out in 2024 regardless, but he can be so much more valuable before that day comes. By choosing not to, he punishes the rest of us.