Joe Manchin's Game | Opinion

U.S. senators are like star ballplayers. They like the spotlight, and they love to win.

Unlike the vast majority of their constituents, U.S. senators don't have to worry about medical bills or food or their next paycheck. For them, politics really is just a game.

Like any athlete, senators move based on two forces. They respond to their opponents, with whom they compete on the field of play. And they answer to their coaches, who decide whether they get to play at all.

For some senators, their "coach" is their base—a mix of party officials, interest groups and donors that put them into office (and can take them out). For those senators, the best way to influence them is by influencing their base. If enough local unions, party bosses, or citizens groups weigh in, the senators will move in their direction.

Joe Manchin isn't like those senators. In West Virginia, Manchin isn't just the star player. He's the coach too. Over the last few decades, as Manchin has consolidated corporate power (financiers and corporate lawyers are his most reliable donors), the Democratic Party of West Virginia has become the Joe Manchin Machine (his cousin is the current state chair).

This arrangement has served Joe (and his donors) quite well. For the people of West Virginia, it's been a disaster.

When Manchin first won statewide office 20 years ago, more than 60 percent of West Virginians were registered Democrats. That number is now 36 percent and Republicans just became the plurality party in the state in February, for the first time in nearly a century. Manchin is the only remaining Democrat to serve in a federal or statewide office.

Working class families have suffered most. Manchin's pro-corporate policies robbed our roads, our schools, our water utilities and delivered untold wealth to out-of-state coal, pharmaceutical and natural gas executives. Labor unions were decimated. Jobs are now harder to get and harder to keep than they used to be. A generation of poverty and trauma has left scars. Our towns face historic rates of suicide, mental illness, family separation and overdose deaths.

Along the way, Manchin accumulated enough clout to relegate the traditional power brokers to the sidelines. The joke in West Virginia is that Manchin talks to everyone. And listens to no one. He cares as much about what his constituents want as the ballplayer cares about the handmade sign being waved in the nose-bleed section. Traditional advocacy and social media campaigns are burnt money.

This is by design. As coach and star, Manchin is free to run his own game. Here's how that game is played:

It starts with Manchin coming out as a "no" on every major Democratic agenda item: stimulus, minimum wage, HR1. The list can and will go on. He's in the headlines for three weeks saying: No, I won't vote for that.

Next, inevitably, he counters with a more moderate position: Well what about reduced stimulus checks? Well what about a lower minimum wage increase? Well what about some small changes to the filibuster?

Finally, having weakened the original proposal, he usually votes in favor.

Manchin's game works well for Manchin. It keeps him in the spotlight. It reinforces his self-image as a moderate hero and dealmaker. And most important, it keeps his corporate backers happy, by making sure working class Americans don't get everything we deserve.

 Senator Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) leaves the Capitol
Senator Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) leaves the U.S. Capitol after a vote June 10, 2021, in Washington, D.C. Alex Wong/Getty Images

Many in the news media and the Democratic establishment fill the stands, watching Manchin play this game, cheering and booing at different turns. They show up, waving their handmade signs. In the end, all of this does nothing.

What else is there to do?

There's only one way to move an establishment politician like Manchin: you have to challenge him on the field. In his 30 years in office, Senator Manchin has only stood up for working people three times. Every single time, he first faced a direct local threat to his power that forced him to act.

In the 1990s, Joe Manchin was a Democratic state senator who flaunted his ties to ALEC and coal executives. He badly wanted to be governor, but he couldn't get past pro-labor Democrat Charlotte Pritt in the 1996 primary. Since then, he has been a reliable vote against "right to work" laws and a reliable recipient of labor union endorsements.

Years later, when the Affordable Care Act was on the chopping block in 2017, newly-elected Senator Manchin started out as an ACA opponent. Then, dozens of hyper-local "resistance" groups started building political infrastructure (and raising money) outside of Manchin's sphere of influence. Manchin had a change of heart, eventually voting to save the ACA.

Finally, Senator Manchin has made funding for coalminer's pensions a top priority. This came in response to fierce, sustained, electoral mobilization from the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), which also successfully moved Republican Senator Shelley Moore Capito on the issue. In return, Manchin and Capito won both the union's endorsement (and reelection).

The lesson is simple. To persuade Manchin, West Virginians must fight to replace him and his machine. The threat we mount must be credible, homegrown, fearless and permanent.

That's what we are doing.

In 2018, West Virginia educators walked out, sparking a nationwide strike wave and leaving behind a generation of organizers and activists who owed nothing to the Manchin machine.

A year later, a movement emerged with the aim of winning a people's government in West Virginia. Calling ourselves WV Can't Wait, we recruited 101 pro-labor, no-corporate-cash candidates and built a crowdsourced policy platform that was too popular to win the support of Manchin Democrats (full cannabis legalization, broadband as a public utility, an end to election buying, a wealth tax and 28 other detailed plans). When the pandemic hit, WV Can't Wait neighborhood captains turned our field operation into a COVID response team—helping voters secure food, unemployment benefits and absentee ballots.

In 2021, our homegrown threat continues to grow. New independent media outlets and mutual aid groups are popping up almost every week. WV Can't Wait elected officials are turning bold plans into state legislation.

Despite his national profile, Manchin's popularity in-state and his grip on power are starting to slip. Don't wave signs, and watch the game unfold. Join us. It's time to take to the field, and challenge Manchin's machine head on.

Katey Lauer and Rae Kelsch are West Virginia residents and leaders with the WV Can't Wait movement.

The views expressed in this article are the writers' own.