West Virginia is not just a conservative state; it is practically the most conservative state in the country. President Joe Biden won 29.7% of the vote there in 2020, his worst performance in any state except Wyoming. If a Democrat can win in West Virginia based on a strong local brand and being more conservative than Biden, then why not in Kansas, Montana, Missouri or Indiana, where Biden got 41% of the vote? Why not Ohio or Iowa (45%), Texas (46%), Florida (48%) or North Carolina (49%)?
Democrats, of course, are trying to win in those last five states. But candidates such as Tim Ryan and Val Demings are running as mostly traditional Biden Democrats (in Ohio and Florida, respectively). That’s fine with me — I like the chair. And I love Ryan and Demings. They’re both charismatic, they run smart campaigns, and I expect them to top Biden’s local approval rating somewhat. But they will probably lose again.
It would be interesting to see more candidates in red states define themselves as “Joe Manchin Democrats,” drawing fundamental distinctions between their views and those of Biden.
Before last week, many liberals were thinking that Manchin is a crypto-Republican and anyone more conservative than Biden must be Mitt Romney’s second coming. But this is nonsense. Progressives, by their own estimation, have a truly radical view of the transformation of American society. They want to remake the American energy system. They want a European welfare state. They want a unionized economy. They want to subvert American gun culture.
They want a lot of things! And there’s nothing wrong with having big ambitions. But when your ambitions are huge, that means there’s plenty of opportunity for people to have smaller ambitions without being doctrinaire conservatives.
And that’s Joe Manchin. He acknowledges the science of climate change and believes the wealthy should pay their fair share of taxes. But he doesn’t really buy into the idea that there should be a radical transformation of American society. It’s a perfectly reasonable worldview, and the presence of members of Congress who favor some changes helps those who favor many changes.
The biggest problem with Manchin is that there is only one. So Democrats have no margin for error on anything.
An equally conservative senator from Kansas wouldn’t have Manchin’s connection to the coal industry and would likely be more enthusiastic about wind power. A Florida Manchin would likely be more forceful in his defense of abortion rights. A North Carolinian Manchin would be a more zealous anti-racist.
The point here should be obvious: A senator who agrees with progressives on a few things is far better than a senator who disagrees with them on nothing. But that wisdom was lost to the wind. Democrats running in red states happily distance themselves from “the squad” and blatantly toxic ideas like defunding the police. But the red states are places that by definition rejected not only Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders but also Joe Biden. To get the votes of people who have backed Donald Trump twice, Democratic candidates have to agree with Trump on certain things.
This is anathema to most progressive intellectuals and activists, of course. Many of them view Biden himself as a painfully moderate alternative to their favorite politicians.
But that’s why the left should pay more attention to the genuinely enthusiastic reaction from its side to the announcement of the Inflation Reduction Act. This bill is tiny compared to the grandiose ambitions of progressives. At the same time, it’s a huge improvement over the status quo. Achieving it would count as a victory rationally and feel for it emotionally.
And it’s Manchin’s presence that makes it all possible. His presence in the caucus should be celebrated rather than tolerated, and recruiting efforts in tough races should deliberately focus on building a team of manchinist candidates who put a clear distance between them and mainstream Democrats while adhering to certain progressive positions.
That would mean returning to something more like the pre-2014 era, when the Democratic caucus had separate conservative and progressive wings, with most members somewhere in between. More recently, the progressive bloc has grown and the conservative wing has shrunk.
It gave progressive egos a boost. But as last week showed, at the end of the day, even diehard ideologues would rather get things done than do nothing. And that means more Manchins – and more Manchinism.
More from Bloomberg Opinion:
• Manchin U-turn gives cleantech a boost: Liam Denning
• Surprise Manchin-Schumer deal would be a huge win: publishers
• Democrats should blame themselves, not Manchin: Ramesh Ponnuru
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Matthew Yglesias is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. Co-founder and former columnist of Vox, he writes the Slow Boring blog and newsletter. He is the author, most recently, of “One Billion Americans”.
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