A lot of people are really mad at Senator Joe Manchin right now. Today he voted to confirm very controversial, very conservative nominee Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. The final vote was 50 to 48, with Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski voting “present” (meaning she didn’t vote either yes or no) and Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia being the only Democrat to vote yes.
Liberals are branding him a traitor, calling him spineless, labeling him a self-serving coward, and threatening to back his Republican opponent in November.
But have a little pity for poor Joe Manchin. It’s not easy being blue (in a red state).
Joe Manchin didn’t do anything that any other Senator in his position wouldn’t have done. In fact, I guarantee you that Joe had not only the permission but the blessing of his party leaders to vote as he did.
Why is that? Joe Manchin is a Democratic Senator from very red West Virginia. How red is West Virginia? The reddest: Donald Trump won every county. At 68.5%, Trump had the largest share of the vote of any state (Hillary Clinton received just over a quarter of the vote).
His constituents are MAGA hat-wearing conservatives. With those demographics, Senator Manchin can’t be very far to the left, can he? He can’t be a Coastal Liberal or a Bernie Sanders Socialist and keep winning. If he had voted no on the Kavanaugh confirmation, he’ll be kicked to the curb on November 6th and the new Senator from the Great State of West Virginia will be Patrick Morrisey, a Republican. And furthermore, if Manchin had voted against the confirmation what, exactly, would have been gained? Would it have sunk the nomination? It wouldn’t. Because the vote would have been 49 to 49. And when there is a tie in the Senate, the Vice President of the United States gets to cast the tie-breaking vote. And that’s VP Mike Pence. Pence would have voted yes. So Kavanaugh would still have been confirmed, Manchin would have pissed off all the voters in his state, and in November West Virginia would swing over into the Republican column. How, exactly does that help the Democrats?
It doesn’t. So Manchin cast this vote to shore up his conservative creds. That’s playing the game with an eye towards strategy.
At times like this people get very emotional about politics. They want every vote cast by every public servant to come from a place of the purest of intentions. But what good is running for public office if you don’t get elected? Every politician (and everyone who understands politics) knows the line: You can’t govern if you don’t win.
More to the point, a party can’t govern if it doesn’t win. And “winning” at the congressional level means your party has to have the majority of seats. Having the majority is of the utmost importance. It means that you control everything, from the legislative agenda right on down to the smallest detail. The power lies in the hands of the party in control. Sadly, the Democratic party is struggling with that very fact right now. They are shut out of both houses of Congress and the White House, not to mention most state legislatures. Democrats would dearly love to take back at least one chamber of Congress in November. And so leaders are doing everything they can to ensure that incumbents keep hold of their seats. If that means throwing West Virginia voters a bone in the shape of a yes vote for Kavanaugh, you can be sure they’re happy to do it. It cost them nothing. And it may have gained them a vulnerable seat.
Even though the issues are very important and impact people’s lives every day, politics still functions very much like a game. And just like football or baseball or any other contest where there are winners and losers, there’s strategy. Lots and lots of strategy.
Of course, none of this negates the fact that we now have a solidly conservative Supreme Court, or that a privileged, contemptuous, condescending, misogynistic man now occupies a seat on the highest court of the land. But I hope it helps to explain the game and assuage your anger a little bit. Don’t be so hard on Joe Manchin.