Manchin Cast in Same Mold as Byrd

A fellow from Oregon, in West Virginia working on a political campaign, was asked this question: So, in Oregon, how important is it to Democrat candidates to get endorsements from the National Rifle Association, anti-abortion groups, the chamber of commerce and the manufacturers’ organization?

He just laughed, I’m told.

That’s what national Democrat Party leaders just don’t get about Democrats in West Virginia – and, increasingly, elsewhere. They seem to be under the impression Democrats have to be cut-and-dried liberals.

Both of our state’s U.S. senators are Democrats. One, Jay Rockefeller, is a liberal. The other, Joe Manchin, is conservative on many issues. Guess which one’s wildly popular and which one has relatively low approval ratings?

Public Policy Polling asked 932 West Virginians whether they approve or disapprove of Manchin and Rockefeller. Manchin got a 59 percent approval rating, with just 26 percent disapproving. Rockefeller was at 47 percent approval – and 41 percent disapproval.

What’s important about Manchin is he appeals to both Democrats and many Republicans. PPP found he is the fifth most popular of the 87 senators they’ve included in polls.

Had Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and President Barack Obama been paying attention, they’d understand Manchin. All they have to do is look at the career of his predecessor, the late Robert C. Byrd.

Byrd made a long, distinguished career out of representing constituents, not his party. At times, he told both Democrat and Republican presidents where to go. Byrd knew he represented traditionally conservative Mountain State residents. Re-election, term after term, eventually gave him enough seniority to wield power that insulated him from Democrat Party discipline and gave him influence over policy.

Manchin seems to have decided Byrd had it right. But he’s only a freshman who has been in office just a few months. He does not have the same amount of power and political self-defense ability Byrd enjoyed. He represents a state that usually is not much of a factor in presidential elections.

Yet he has been outspoken in criticism of his party’s president and has, on occasion, voted against policies to which the Democrat Party seems dedicated.

Neither Obama nor Senate Democrat leaders can afford to alienate Manchin, however. For starters, they need him for issues on which he does agree with them. Democrats hold only 51 seats in the Senate, with 47 Republicans and two independents. Alienate Manchin and just three more Democrat or independent senators and none of the party’s agenda passes. Unless I’m sadly mistaken, the party’s already thin margin will narrow even more next year.

And, of course, there’s the filibuster rule – which Manchin dislikes intensely. Bills in the Senate can be blocked unless 60 senators agree to cut off debate. While that makes Democrat leaders even more leery of upsetting conservatives such as Manchin, it also can mean gridlock on Capitol Hill.

Manchin voted in favor of cutting off debate on Obama’s “jobs bill” – not because he likes the plan but because he wanted it to move to the Senate floor where amendments could be suggested. As it turned out, a cloture vote failed and Obama’s bill is dead.

Still, Manchin may get a chance to support sections of the bill he likes, while rejecting those he doesn’t. It’s possible the Obama plan will be split into several parts and tried again.

Manchin sees no contradiction in attempting to get the bill to the Senate floor, again because he wanted to amend it severely. As he points out, West Virginians don’t like gridlock. They want up-or-down votes on bills themselves, not technicalities.

It’s true Manchin is fighting an uphill battle against partisanship in Washington. But he’ll stay in the Senate to fight it as long as he wants.

Why? Because Manchin, like Byrd did, understands something too many members of Congress have forgotten: It’s the folks back home, not the party leaders in Washington, who vote.

Myer can be reached via email at: