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Magazine / Need to Know: Senate

The Next Zell Miller?

West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin is making a habit of distancing himself from the White House.

Bête noire: Sen. Joe Manchin(Chet Susslin)

Freshman Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia is a downer for the White House and Senate Republicans. This is somewhat new, because both camps—for different reasons—were upbeat about Manchin when he arrived at the Capitol in November.

The White House admired Manchin for voting against the GOP’s repeal of health care reform. Republicans applauded that vote too, cynically seeing it as an opportunity to paint Manchin as a tool of the Obama White House and Democratic interest groups. Health care reform has been, to put it mildly, a journey for Manchin. As a candidate last summer, he supported it (with the qualification that no bill was perfect). In the campaign’s homestretch, he opposed it. Now Manchin has voted not to repeal the law, with a qualification (again): He wants a significant overhaul, starting with undoing the individual mandate for health insurance purchases.

Manchin is on yet another journey, walking away from the White House again, cultivating a separatist Democratic voice on fiscal issues that echoes that of former Sen. Zell Miller, D-Ga., on national-security issues. It’s too early to think of Manchin as a speaker at the Republican National Convention in 2012 the way Miller delivered the keynote address for President Bush in 2004. But Manchin has said he’s not sure he’ll vote to reelect President Obama; that sounds like a start down the road to Millerville.

 

Manchin spent this week in West Virginia excoriating his party’s performance on the deficit and debt, and then announced that he will not vote to raise the current debt limit above $14.3 trillion unless it is part of a larger package of spending cuts.

“I will not tell you that we can have everything we want and there will be no cuts or sacrifice,” he said in Charleston on Monday. “That would be a lie. There are some in Washington who believe we can simply ignore the fiscal peril we face as a nation. They are wrong.”

Who is they? By implication, it’s Obama. Manchin has already chastised Obama for his handling of the unfinished 2011 budget, saying he has “failed to lead” or offer a “serious proposal” to solve the problem. “The president’s great responsibility is to lead, confront these difficult issues head-on, and bring people together,” Manchin told National Journal. “Only the president has the responsibility to look at all 50 states and set our values and priorities.”

Manchin also criticizes Republicans for offering “partisan” spending cuts. He’s somewhere between the $10 billion that’s already been cut and the $51 billion that House Republicans still seek, but exactly where he falls is not clear. He’s just not where Obama is, and that appears to be the main political point he wants to make.

Manchin declines to offer a spending-cut plan of his own, and, although he’s sympathetic to the bipartisan “Gang of Six” senators and their efforts to draft a deficit-reduction package, Manchin is not an active participant or likely to be moved by its final product. “To do this right, it’s going to take a gang of 535 and the president,” he said. In other words, Manchin knows very clearly what he’s against (debt and deficits), what kind of leadership style he can’t stomach (Obama’s), and what’s necessary for him to raise the debt ceiling (“sacrifice”).

Republicans privately admit that Manchin is cagey in his politics, and they pay him grudging respect for getting ahead of what they assume will be his reluctant yes vote on the debt ceiling. The GOP sees Manchin’s combined criticism of Obama on the continuing-resolution mess and his drag-me-kicking-and-screaming pose on the debt ceiling as a gallingly effective shield against a strong Republican challenge next year.

Top Republicans doubt that GOP Rep. Shelley Moore Capito will run against Manchin. Republicans concede they will have to find an alternative from among the ranks of untested GOP business figures in West Virginia because they aren’t looking for a rematch of the 2010 contest. Manchin defeated business executive John Raese by 53 percent to 43 percent last year, and GOP strategists assume that Manchin’s approval ratings have only gotten better with his budget moves—as aggressively nonspecific as they have been.

Manchin has a history of bucking Democrats and wooing Republicans. When he lost in an 11-way gubernatorial primary in 1996, it was because he spurned labor unions. When he ran and won in 2004, a group called Republicans for Manchin, which included prominent Bush supporters, rallied to his cause. Manchin’s 2008 victory margin was the largest in West Virginia since the Civil War—70 percent to 26 percent over Republican Russ Weeks, while GOP presidential nominee John McCain bested Obama 56 percent to 43 percent on the same ballot.

That’s the kind of math Manchin understands. He may not have a specific policy prescription to deal with the deficit or the debt, but Manchin knows something about the space-time continuum. He needs to put more space between himself and Obama because the time between now and Election Day (even with a seemingly thin Republican field) is shrinking fast.

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