West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin stands at the bridge. He has immense influence — virtually a veto — on whether and how this country makes progress in the Biden administration.
Not surprisingly, he’s under immense pressure. The right-wing Koch network has launched a barrage of ads calling on Manchin to stand against Biden’s American Jobs Plan and the For the People Voting Rights Bill. Progressive groups are organizing on the ground and in the air to push Manchin to vote for reform. Across the country, citizen movements are building to call on Congress to act on challenges — from climate change, to entrenched racial inequity, to extreme inequality — that can no longer be ignored.
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Manchin’s recent statement that he would demand bipartisan support for any election reforms, even as Republicans push partisan election reforms at the state level, triggered howls of outrage. His embrace of the filibuster — effectively giving Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell the power to obstruct Biden’s agenda — effectively condemns the country to political paralysis.
One can understand Manchin’s fervid embrace of bipartisanship in an age of hyper-partisan divides. Trump won 69% of the vote in West Virginia in 2020, the highest of any state. Manchin is the only Democrat elected statewide in West Virginia as it has turned more and more Republican over the last decade.
Even as the Democratic Party has become increasingly the party of the suburbs and the cities, of people of color and the professional middle class, 69% of West Virginia voters are whites without a college degree. These voters — who have every reason to feel abandoned by the new Democrats — are the heart of Trump’s base.
Yet Manchin is no coward. In contrast with Republican senators who cower for Trump’s approval, Manchin voted to impeach Trump and to set up a bipartisan commission to investigate the Jan. 6 sacking of the Capitol. In these cases, he voted for the national interest — and for common sense — over any personal political interest.
Now he faces the same choice. Manchin represents one of the poorest states in the union. With the collapse of the coal industry and the closing of manufacturing plants, West Virginia is an epicenter of deaths of despair. It leads the nation in drug overdose deaths. By 2016, it suffered one death by overdose every 10 hours.
Poverty haunts West Virginians. The state suffers the highest rate of adult diabetes, the highest levels of obesity, the worst rate of smoking and lung disease. Extreme poverty means inadequate access to healthy food, decent housing and health care, with growing levels of financial stress and threats to personal safety.
Because of its poverty, West Virginia is already one of the states most dependent on federal assistance. If its people have any hope, it is that federal investment will do for West Virginia what it has done for regions across the country — provide the resources for modernizing infrastructure, seeding new industries, cleaning up toxic dumps and environmental hazards, funding education from pre-K through college and more.
In contrast with previous presidents, Joe Biden offers the vision and the promise for that rebuilding. His American Jobs Plan and American Families Plan provides the resources needed for America to begin to meet the challenges it faces. Given his importance, Manchin could ensure that West Virginia stands at the front of the line for the resources involved. He could make a historic contribution to the revival of his state — and to the revival of this country.
Conservatives like the Kochs cannot match that possibility. At best, they offer Manchin only a marginally better chance at re-election in a state that will continue to decline.
In 1964 and ’65, as the civil rights movement galvanized the country’s “better angels,” Lyndon Johnson cemented the support of the Republican Senate leader Everett Dirksen by combining an appeal to history with an appeal to Dirksen’s specific interests.
That is the task before Joe Biden now. Republicans under McConnell have shown that their sole priority is to obstruct Biden in the hope of strengthening their hold on power. No more time need be wasted on negotiations that are designed only to fail. Biden now needs to do a Lyndon Johnson on Manchin: to offer him the chance to both make history and to benefit his own state, to serve his principles and his interests. The time has come to move.
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