Manchin makes mark in the middle
FRIENDLY, W.Va. -- Many locals around here see Sen. Joe Manchin as one of them, so much so they greet the 30-year veteran of West Virginia politics by his first name more often than by his title.
But in the Senate, the 66-year-old upstart stands out as a rare breed: A back-slapping, gun-owning Democrat who attracts widespread support from working class whites in an increasingly Republican state.
Last November, two years after winning a special election to succeed the late Robert Byrd, Manchin won his first full term with more than 60 percent of the vote. He ran 25 percentage points ahead of President Barack Obama, posting the Senate's top crossover spread in two election cycles.
That success could offer Democrats a road map in other GOP strongholds, particularly Southern states that share West Virginia's conservative makeup.
The grandson and great-grandson of immigrants, Manchin -- taken from the Italian "Mancini" -- calls his delicate walk between his party and his own identity a journey of "balance" and "common sense." And he attributes his success to his small-town upbringing and experience as a state legislator, secretary of state and governor dating back to 1982.
In a whirlwind of stops across the state, Manchin praises federal programs, implemented under Democratic presidents from Franklin Roosevelt to Lyndon Johnson, which helped West Virginia over the years; but he's also quick to tout the work ethic of beneficiaries of such programs, telling one crowd, "If you think government should do everything for you, I'm the wrong person for you."
He turns questions about party and philosophy into indictments of Washington acrimony: "I'm a proud West Virginia Democrat, but I'm willing to work with anybody."
On the revolving fiscal fight in Congress, Manchin bemoans Republicans who reject all tax hikes and Democrats who blast most spending cuts. "They're both right and they're both wrong," he says, offering his own solution that seems to combine a little of both. He's also open to reviewing the Earned Income Tax Credit for low-wage workers, while calling for increasing the minimum wage to at least $10 per hour.
He insists that environmentalists and the energy industry can reconcile, if government sets "reasonable and attainable" pollution limits and fossil fuel plants embrace them. As governor he sued Obama's Environmental Protection Agency and still hammers the administration for "pie-in-the-sky" environmental standards. Those are necessary tactics for any statewide elected official in this leading coal state, but they're also true to the Manchin form: "We can balance the economy and the environment."
"Balance" is also his defense when he's chastised -- and it happens often -- for a gun compromise he pushed after last year's Connecticut elementary school massacre. The measure didn't include new weapons or ammunition bans. Instead, it would have extended existing background checks to more gun sales, but not to private transactions between parties who know each other.
Perhaps Manchin's deftest tightrope walk concerns the president himself. Obama got walloped twice in West Virginia, and a recent poll suggested that almost half the state's voters want him impeached. Manchin says Obama's poor standing isn't about him being the first black president, even though about 19 out of 20 West Virginia residents are white. Manchin contends that Democrats have a more general cultural problem on everything from guns to abortion, and that Obama's environmental positions escalate the distrust. "People have to like you and trust you," he said.
Manchin insists that "the White House and I don't exactly get along," but he nonetheless defends the president on some matters. Almost pre-emptively, he says at several stops, "Whether he's a Republican or Democrat, we should always respect the president and want him to succeed, because we want the nation to succeed." When one woman in Moundsville blasted Obama as an insufficient defender of Israel, Manchin interrupted her: "I don't think that's true."
Manchin supported the immigration overhaul that Obama backed and that has been stymied in the GOP-run House. "You can't just deport 11 million people," he told people angry about his vote. The Affordable Care Act passed before he took office, but Manchin tells voters "the intentions were right" and insists that a full repeal isn't practical or beneficial. Even as he criticized implementation of the health care law, Manchin said Congress' job is to make it work.
But he also reminds his more partisan critics that he opposes the confirmation of Janet Yellen, Obama's nominee for Federal Reserve chairman. He voted, too, against a Senate rules change that allows Democrats to confirm certain nominees with a simple majority of 51 votes, rather than the 60 previously required when the minority party objected.
"Most people know he doesn't just follow the party line," said Republican Bob Miller, a Marshall County commissioner. Although he supported Manchin's Republican opponent in the last two Senate elections, Miller said he's "never looked at Joe as Satan."
Manchin said he operates as he did at the statehouse in Charleston, where he remains an influential figure. State Sen. Larry Edgell, a Democrat, said then-Gov. Manchin met regularly with both party caucuses and also hosted small, bipartisan groups of lawmakers. Manchin now uses the same strategy inviting groups of senators out on a boat he keeps docked near Washington. The social outings have produced pairings like Republican Ted Cruz of Texas and Democrat Chuck Schumer of New York, according to Manchin's staff. "You've got to find leverage" on issues, Manchin said, "and have the relationships to use it."
Manchin said he's not trying to amass influence to "be a lifer" in the Senate. He also didn't reject the possibility of looking beyond West Virginia, should an opportunity arise. "I'm not sure I'd put my family through that," he said of his own national campaign. But he added, "I'm happy to help wherever I can."
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