Last week, US Senator Joe Manchin went to New Hampshire and made headlines even in Great Britain. The Daily Mail headline referred to the Senator saying “we’ll see” when asked if he would follow the Joe Liebermann model and switch his registration to independent. Of course, pre election year visits to locales such as New Hampshire or Iowa always have a heavy political tinge.
Manchin faces a unique career crossroads. Robert Maddox, the late Marshall University professor of US and state history, used to say the most successful US Senators from West Virginia were those who knew how to bring others together, whether within or between the two parties. He cited Jennings Randolph as a penultimate example.
Both Senators Manchin and Shelley Moore Capito have worked to fill that role while earning respect in their offices. Manchin, however, has paid a steep price over time. As a centrist who occasionally leans to the political right, he has for years taken slings and arrows from national Democrats who wish he’d be more leftist and West Virginia voters who see efforts at national compromise as working against the interests of his voters in the Mountain State.
The classical definition of a dilemma lies in having a set of choices, each one presenting a set of difficult problems to overcome.
He actually has four options. The first two, running once again for Governor or retirement, have not come up much in the general conversation.
Manchin could run for re-election in his current office. His centrism has made him vulnerable in a conservative state and the Republican Party has strong choices to put against him. Congressman Alex Mooney is an experienced, fearless, and relentless campaigner skilled at pointing out where opponents fall short on meeting the state’s conservative expectations. Governor Jim Justice and his mascot Babydog may be some of the best political branding one will find anywhere.
Either would push Manchin hard in a general election for US Senate.
The presidency looms as a political magnet for Manchin. No Democrat with national standing, including Biden himself, has the level of experience at both the state and federal level that Manchin brings. The problem for him there, however, is that his party at the national level has fallen into the hands of Jacobins.
National level Republicans and their media allies alternate in their like and dislike of Manchin depending on what he says or does on that particular day, but highly visible Democratic party Leftists and Team Biden despise his moderation.
Manchin’s problems in a presidential race are clear. Switching registration to Republican at this stage would fail to put him among the top rank of current GOP choices. As far as the national Democratic Left is concerned, the fact that a Manchin presidency would likely look more like that of Grover Cleveland or Harry Truman than an Obama or even a Clinton would earn their undying enmity.
Manchin seems to be exploring the “No Labels” option, but third party campaigns have tremendous challenges baked into the cake. His best shot, should he decide to run for president, would seem to be the hope that independents and a Democratic “silent majority” in key states would carry him past the bewildered Biden to his current party’s nomination.
Overall, the biggest problem in American politics is the presidency itself. That office has grown powerful enough to directly affect people’s lives, which inevitably brings brinksmanship in politics because so many feel they have so much to lose.
A message of limiting the power of the presidency, promising the return of significant authority to state governments, and a Warren Harding “return to normalcy” style campaign could resonate with those on both sides tired of increasing DC dominance of the national landscape. These ideals lie within the Manchin political spectrum, but are they winning arguments in 2024 for a candidate like him, should he run?