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Joe Manchin Has a Lot of Explaining to Do

Joe Manchin’s face seen in profile.
Credit...Stefani Reynolds for The New York Times

Senator Joe Manchin, behave.

Perhaps you’ve heard the rumor that Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat who made his name by driving his party crazy on close votes, is now possibly running for president. Sort of.

“If I get in a race, I’m going to win,” he predicted at an appearance in New Hampshire this week. “With that being said, I haven’t made a decision.”

A crowd had packed the auditorium, straining to hear his every word. Really. A lot of them were undoubtedly drawn not so much by the promise of thrilling rhetoric as by rumors Manchin might announce he was going to be a third-party candidate in 2024.

Didn’t happen. Although Manchin was certainly dropping hints. He appeared onstage with Jon Huntsman, the former Republican governor of Utah. The hosts included Joe Lieberman, the Democratic vice-presidential candidate in 2000. In order to stay on topic, we’ll refrain from digressing into a description of how Lieberman contributed to Al Gore’s very narrow defeat with a stupendously bad debate performance against … Dick Cheney.

Lieberman is now one of the public faces of No Labels, a new would-be political party that’s all about being, um, against political parties. No Labels is busy qualifying for the presidential ballot in as many states as possible, and people are wondering if the party’s honchos are planning a Manchin-Huntsman ticket.

“Most Americans still believe in the American promise … the political parties have not delivered,” Manchin said. Frankly, that was about as exciting as his New Hampshire moment got.

So, OK, Manchin is not a hot orator. He wants you to think of him as a bipartisan voice of moderation, although most of his national fame comes from his willingness to demand favors in return for his vote on the Senate floor. Of course, there are approximately 100 senators who attempt to make deals like that, but Manchin is sort of special in the way he goes after major bills with very big, very public proposed trades. For a while, he put the brakes on Joe Biden’s biggest achievement, the Inflation Reduction Act, withholding his critical tiebreaking vote until he got an energy deal on the side.

Now he’s threatened to vote with Republicans to repeal that whole package unless Biden cuts back on support for electric vehicles. When it comes to energy, Manchin really wants us to think coal. After all, he’s from West Virginia, which has become seriously Republican, and he could be up for a very tough re-election race next year.

Pop quiz: Manchin not only represents a state that’s big for coal, he built his own considerable fortune on a very profitable coal business. What do you think was key to his success?

A. A long history of getting up at dawn to go work in the mines.

B. A Ph.D. thesis on energy efficiency.

C. Trading political favors for business advantages.

I know I’m supposed to tell you the answer here, but if you couldn’t figure it out, there’s really no point in our going on together.

Manchin’s current political talents are all about working within the system, even when he’s threatening to take the system down. Does he really believe he could win election to the highest-profile political office on the globe?

You’d like to think no — it’s always kind of depressing when politicians have a self-image totally out of sync with reality. (Recalling your career again here, Joe Lieberman.)

But even if the whole effort was hopeless, as a third-party candidate Manchin would get a heck of a lot of attention. And running a losing campaign for president would certainly be a lot more exciting than running a losing campaign for re-election to the Senate.

According to a recent Quinnipiac University poll, 47 percent of registered voters would consider voting for a third-party candidate. That’s a huge number, although most of them would presumably change their minds when it actually came time to make a choice. They’re just expressing their dissatisfaction. Still, given the nutty way our electoral system is set up, a well-publicized third option might affect the results just enough in a few crucial states to change the outcome. The winner of a presidential race, remember, does not have to be the person who got the most votes. Just ask Hillary Clinton.

That spoiler scenario is what’s driving Democrats crazy.

If Manchin just wants to campaign and complain about his big issues, like deficit spending, why doesn’t he run in a Democratic primary? Could it possibly be because taking on the party’s sitting president would be so completely, obviously hopeless it’d just make him seem delusional? The biggest Democratic complaint about Joe Biden, after all, is the fact that he’s 80. Is that going to send voters racing over to 75-year-old Joe Manchin?

Not gonna work. So he’s playing into the hands of Lieberman and the No Labels crowd instead. There he was at their event, dripping with both-sides-ism, claiming the current miserable state of American politics is coming from “the growing divide in our political parties and the toxic political rhetoric from our elected leaders.”

Let’s stop here for a second and contemplate whether one particular party is actually responsible for this toxicity explosion.

But either way, there are only three possible ways to fight it.

A. Choose a party and work within it to nominate good candidates.

B. Refuse to vote while whining about how terrible the choices are.

C. Rally around a third party and feel quite principled, while helping to draw votes away from the candidate who’s the best real option.

Yeah, Manchin seems to be flirting with C. Which could lead to Donald Trump’s return to the White House. And give the senator from West Virginia a label I can’t mention in a family newspaper.

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Posted on 20 Jul 2023 01:10 link