The Politics of Joe Manchin
Partisan, Trustee, and Delegate
By Patrick Sprinkle
With the election of President Joe Biden in November 2020 and control of both chambers of Congress, Democrats held unified control of government for the first time in since 2010. This once-in-a-decade opportunity has provided Democrats the votes necessary to narrowly pass much of their agenda without a single Republican vote through the budget reconciliation process, a yearly opportunity, in the United States Senate.
Why hasn’t President Biden been able to secure passage of his Build Back Better agenda which includes substantial investments in infrastructure, health care, fighting climate change, and many shared Democratic goals? In the narrowly divided Senate (50-50), every vote matters and every single Senator effectively has a legislative veto over any legislation without bipartisan support. One such Senator is Democrat Joe Manchin from West Virginia. A former state secretary of state, governor, and now staunchly centrist U.S. Senator, Manchin can effectively block Joe Biden’s signature achievements. The aim in this essay is to briefly explore how Manchin can be viewed and act as a partisan, trustee, and delegate of the people of West Virginia. Ultimately, like any politician, Senator Manchin will pick and choose when to act as each.
Generally, politicians will act as a partisan when it is in their benefit to do so and out of a sense of lifetime party loyalty. After all, the two-party system creates incentives to align with and create more permanent political alliances rather than ad hoc relationships. In the aggregate, Senator Manchin is a loyal Democrat. According to 538.com, Senator Manchin has voted with the Democratic Party and Joe Biden’s agenda nearly 100% of the time. While critics will point out that this does not including his political posturing on reconciliation, it is important to note critical votes have been taken on multiple nominees whose confirmations were unsure and Joe Manchin has backed them. While some on the left contend that Senator Manchin would be more comfortable in the Republican Party, his voting record in the aggregate does not reflect this. One of the challenges the Democratic Party must contend with is being able to manage the expectations of those on the political left, and hold together a wobbly coalition of liberals, moderates, and centrists.
Liberals would hope that if Senator Manchin would not act in blind loyalty to the Democratic Party, his wisdom and judgment would bring him to support and align with liberals in the party. With the trustee model of representation, political leaders make decisions based on their best judgment. Politicians generally prefer this model of representation because it gives them the freedom to act. One such scenario was in the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump. Quite frankly, there was no political incentive for Senator Manchin to vote for conviction in the Senate as he did. President Donald Trump consistently holds higher approval, generally by margins of 20% or 30%, that Senator Manchin in the Mountaineer State. Why vote for conviction? President Trump’s actions in instigating and inciting a riot at the Capitol, in the opinion of Senator Manchin, were atrocious and deserving of removal from office. While Senator Manchin’s vote to convict probably angered constituents in West Virginia, and would probably permanently prevent him from switching parties, it signals a degree of independence, if not courage, from his home state voters.
What can best explain Manchin’s resistance to reconciliation? Senator Manchin has gone on the record and on the Sunday morning shows multiple times declaring his opposition to a $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill. Perhaps it can be explained by some combination of trustee and delegate models. Senator Manchin may genuinely believe the size of government is too big, this huge spending program is a step too far, and massive budgets are also not sustainable (trustee model), but is also important to consider how the delegate model of representation might govern Senator Manchin’s actions. Generally, the delegate model contends that an elected official should simply represent their constituents. While President Trump carried West Virginia by 29% in 2020, Senator Manchin only won re-election in 2018 by 3%. In this model, an elected official could view this as a massive shift towards the Republican Party and a change in the ideology of the State, and act accordingly, occasionally, voting against the president as a way to save face and become somewhat politically palatable in the next election.
While Joe Manchin has been under the attack of liberals, perhaps he should get more credit. There are few political incentives to work with the Democratic Party, and some have suggested Manchin would have been better served voting against conviction of President Trump, and joining the Republican Party, like Rep. Jeff Van Drew of New Jersey after his House vote against impeachment. Whenever Joe Manchin leaves the United States Senate his replacement will likely be much further to the right ideologically and a consistent vote against the Democratic agenda. In a chamber of only 100, every vote matters, and Democrats should try to create an inclusive party which includes Senators from states like West Virginia, even if it means temporarily scaling back their progressive agenda.
The Democratic Party put themselves in a tough bind by controlling the Senate by the narrowest of margins. Every vote must be earned and Senator Joe Manchin’s vote will be necessary to convince voters that the Democratic Party can govern and pass their agenda with unified government ahead of the 2022 midterms. Passing the infrastructure legislation and some version of the Build, Back, Better Plans would be the keystone of the careers of House Speaker Pelosi and Majority Leader Schumer. It is time for the Democratic Party to show the strength of what an ideologically inclusive party can accomplish.
Pat Sprinkle is a 13-year History Teacher from New York City. Patrick lives in Jersey City, NJ, with his wife Melissa, son Franklin, and dog Lyndon Baines.