Manchin Unapologetic on Guns (But Still Playing Defense)

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. is followed by reporters as he walks from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's, D-Nev., office on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, April 9, 2013, after a meeting on gun control. Reid's determination to stage a vote came despite continued inconclusive talks between Manchin, Sen. Patrick Toomey, R-Pa., aimed at finding compromise on expanding background checks to more gun purchasers. But Manchin left a meeting in Reid's office late Tuesday and said he hoped a deal could be completed on Wednesday.
National Journal
Chris Frates
See more stories about...
Chris Frates
Aug. 18, 2013, 7:32 a.m.

BECKLEY, W.Va. — Fif­teen minutes late, Sen. Joe Manchin burst in­to the county lib­rary here and began work­ing a con­fer­ence room full of loc­al busi­ness lead­ers and elec­ted of­fi­cials, many of whom he knew by name.

The crowd gathered last week for an event billed as an eco­nom­ic roundtable, but their ju­ni­or sen­at­or opened with a laun­dry list of is­sues: coal, Obama­care, taxes and spend­ing, stu­dent loans, im­mig­ra­tion and then, dead last, per­haps the toughest is­sue he’s faced in his young ten­ure.

“Guns, I don’t need to tell you about guns,” Manchin said, get­ting a know­ing laugh from the friendly crowd of about three dozen.

Manchin’s push earli­er this year to ex­pand back­ground checks on gun sales was widely known, thanks in part to the Na­tion­al Rifle As­so­ci­ation. In June, the NRA spent $100,000 air­ing an ad slam­ming Manchin for work­ing with Pres­id­ent Obama and New York City May­or Mi­chael Bloomberg on their “gun-con­trol agenda.” Manchin, a lifelong NRA mem­ber, punched back, with his own $100,000 ad buy de­fend­ing his po­s­i­tion. And last month, the NRA countered by send­ing let­ters crit­ic­al of Manchin to 200,000 West Vir­gini­ans.

So it’s no sur­prise that Manchin took a few minutes to de­fend his failed at­tempt to ex­pand back­ground checks. “Let me ask you this point-blank,” Manchin said to the crowd. “Do you think it’s un­reas­on­able if you went to a gun show or on­line that there’d be a back­ground check? That’s all we’re talk­ing about.”

Every­where he goes, Manchin paints his pro­pos­al as a simple fix to close loop­holes that al­low some some gun-show and In­ter­net buy­ers to avoid back­ground checks. It’s an at­tempt to bet­ter keep guns out of the hands of crim­in­als and the men­tally ill. It’s not a gov­ern­ment gun grab. In fact, he ar­gues, his plan would strengthen gun rights.

Still, Manchin knew, in a cul­ture as steeped in guns as the Moun­tain State, he was go­ing to pay a price for push­ing any in­creased gun con­trol.

“You think I didn’t know that when I looked at the back­ground-check bill that it wasn’t go­ing to be as hot as any­thing can pos­sibly (be) in my state?” Manchin told the room. “You think polit­ic­ally that was a smart move for me? Not at all. It was a stu­pid move, polit­ic­ally.”

There’s no doubt that West Vir­gin­ia’s polit­ics are much tough­er for a Demo­crat like Manchin than they used to be. Con­sider this: In 1996, Demo­crat Bill Clin­ton won 51.5 per­cent of the state’s vote on his way to win­ning a second pres­id­en­tial term. Last year, Re­pub­lic­an Mitt Rom­ney’s los­ing pres­id­en­tial bid took home more than 60 per­cent of the vote. Obama did not win a single county in West Vir­gin­ia.

That Manchin’s ad­mis­sion came in Raleigh County was par­tic­u­larly fit­ting. Long a Demo­crat­ic strong­hold, the county has fast be­come GOP ter­rit­ory. The most strik­ing ex­ample is Nick Ra­hall. The Demo­crat­ic con­gress­man, who has served for more than 30 years in the House, hasn’t won the county where he was born in five years.

The dy­nam­ic is driv­en by a cyn­icism and dis­trust of gov­ern­ment fueled by a sense of hope­less­ness among voters that their lead­ers are not chart­ing a fu­ture that will give their chil­dren bet­ter lives, some ana­lysts say. One vet­er­an polit­ic­al con­sult­ant said that in more than 30 years of do­ing West Vir­gin­ia fo­cus groups, voters have nev­er been so dis­il­lu­sioned with politi­cians, yet so hungry for someone to show them a bet­ter way for­ward.

In­stead, most of the polit­ic­al de­bate cen­ters around mak­ing gov­ern­ment less in­trus­ive and bur­den­some. Lane Bailey, a former long­time seni­or staffer to former West Vir­gin­ia Gov. and cur­rent Sen. Jay Rock­e­feller, put it this way, “It’s be­com­ing a red state be­cause Re­pub­lic­ans ar­tic­u­late those new set of val­ues bet­ter than Demo­crats do.”

So it’s not sur­pris­ing then that Manchin is do­ing a lot of ex­plain­ing these days. He is con­stantly re­mind­ing people that he’s not a “Wash­ing­ton Demo­crat.” He’s Joe, the pop­u­lar two-term gov­ernor and lifelong West Vir­gini­an, who, if he talks to you long enough, will prob­ably find someone in your fam­ily tree — maybe a cous­in or an uncle — whom he knows.

But the in­de­pend­ent streak he cul­tiv­ates so care­fully has got­ten him in­to a few polit­ic­al scraps, and not just with the gun lobby. In 2011, Manchin helped kill a pro­pos­al to de­fund Planned Par­ent­hood, draw­ing the ire of West Vir­gini­ans for Life, which en­dorsed his primary op­pon­ent last year. Manchin ex­plained the vote by say­ing that fed­er­al law already pro­hib­its abor­tion fund­ing, and de­fund­ing the or­gan­iz­a­tion would hurt wo­men’s ac­cess to health care.

Sure, Manchin’s angered two con­stitu­en­cies that even he ac­know­ledges are polit­ic­ally im­port­ant. But his mes­sage to voters seems to be, “Hey, I’m Joe, you know me.”

“There’s enough people in the pro-life move­ment that know I’m pro-life. There’s enough people in the gun move­ment that know I will pro­tect your Second Amend­ment rights,” he said in an in­ter­view in his Sen­ate of­fice. “But also they have to know that Joe won’t just roll and kow­tow.”

Wheth­er it’s spe­cial in­terests or party bosses, Manchin spends a lot of time re­mind­ing his con­stitu­ents that he’s not be­hold­en. He’s con­stantly giv­ing polit­ic­al-geo­graphy les­sons where his GPS puts him squarely in the middle, work­ing to bring Demo­crats and Re­pub­lic­ans to­geth­er on the big is­sues of the day.

And he’s had some suc­cess. After stu­dent-loan rates rose this sum­mer, Manchin was a key ne­go­ti­at­or in a deal that brought the rates back down and tied them to the mar­ket. He said he got in­volved after Sen­ate Demo­crat­ic lead­er­ship presen­ted a doomed plan to tem­por­ar­ily ex­tend lower rates.

“You want me to vote for the ex­ten­sion. You know it’s go­ing to fail but you just want to make a polit­ic­al point with the ex­ten­sion like we’re try­ing to keep the rates down. And I said “¦ I know that we can do so much bet­ter, we can re­duce every­body’s rates.”

The deal that passed and was signed in­to law brought rates down for un­der­gradu­ates from 6.8 per­cent to 3.9 per­cent.

In­deed, Manchin is drawn to the deal. Of­ten im­pa­tient with the plod­ding pace of the Sen­ate, the 65-year-old likes high-pro­file is­sues that tend to pro­duce ac­tion.

“Manchin doesn’t want to fall in line, he wants to do his own thing,” said a source who has worked closely with the sen­at­or. “It’s really hard to get him to ex­ecute an agenda that’s very sys­tem­at­ic. The reas­on he does these things like cut­ting deals with Re­pub­lic­ans is be­cause they’re more will­ing to meet him where he is.”

The way Manchin de­scribes it, to get things done, lead­ers have to cre­ate a com­fort zone for their op­pos­i­tion and try to avoid put­ting them at a polit­ic­al dis­ad­vant­age — and that’s es­sen­tially the ex­act op­pos­ite of how Con­gress works these days.

“They’re try­ing to ba­sic­ally beat the shit out of each oth­er. I don’t sub­scribe to that,” Manchin said of the Demo­crat­ic and Re­pub­lic­an Sen­ate lead­ers, adding that neither side gets res­ults that are very good.

But back in Beckley, not every­one’s buy­ing what Manchin is selling. Glenn Bragg is the kind of guy who should worry Manchin­ites. The 57-year-old Re­pub­lic­an said he sup­por­ted Manchin twice for gov­ernor and in the 2010 elec­tion to fill the late Robert Byrd’s Sen­ate seat. But last year, Bragg voted against send­ing Manchin back to Wash­ing­ton.

“Right now, it seems like he’s done a 360. He’s been push­ing for gun con­trol and all that,” the gun-own­ing Baptist min­is­ter said. “He went more to ap­pease those around him, not the people he was rep­res­ent­ing.”

Manchin’s gun-con­trol ex­plan­a­tion hasn’t swayed the Beckley nat­ive. “People who want guns are gonna get guns. Don’t make laws that make it harder for the gun own­ers who are try­ing to be leg­al,” he said.

If he met Manchin, Bragg said, “I’d ask him what was his deal. Why’d he turn on the people?”

Of course, not every­one is dis­mayed with Manchin’s gun con­trol push. At the state fair in Fair­lea last week, El­len Friend bounded up to the sen­at­or. “I wanna thank you for all the work you’ve done on back­ground checks,” the 60-year-old told Manchin. “I don’t think any­body is gonna come to my door and take my guns.”

Still, Friend, a gun-own­ing Demo­crat tot­ing voter-re­gis­tra­tion cards in her bag, said she’s wor­ried that his stance on guns will cost him polit­ic­ally.

For his part, Manchin seems un­deterred. He said he’s go­ing to de­fend his po­s­i­tion and con­tin­ue look­ing for a way to ex­pand gun-sale back­ground checks.

As he walked back to his car, with an af­ter­noon at the state fair in the books, Manchin talked about how im­port­ant it is to meet people on their turf. West Vir­gini­ans, he said, “shake your hand, look in­to your eyes, and see in­to your soul. They have to. It’s sur­viv­al in some tough ter­rit­or­ies. You can’t bull­shit them.”

It takes sin­cere ef­fort, he said. “Are you con­nect­ing? Do they think you’re still real or do they think you’re someone else?”

That ques­tion, more than any oth­er, seems to be the one de­fin­ing Manchin’s early years in Wash­ing­ton. And the an­swer will likely de­term­ine how long he stays.

What We're Following See More »
When It Comes to Mining Asteroids, Technology Is Only the First Problem
1 days ago

Foreign Policy takes a look at the future of mining the estimated "100,000 near-Earth objects—including asteroids and comets—in the neighborhood of our planet. Some of these NEOs, as they’re called, are small. Others are substantial and potentially packed full of water and various important minerals, such as nickel, cobalt, and iron. One day, advocates believe, those objects will be tapped by variations on the equipment used in the coal mines of Kentucky or in the diamond mines of Africa. And for immense gain: According to industry experts, the contents of a single asteroid could be worth trillions of dollars." But the technology to get us there is only the first step. Experts say "a multinational body might emerge" to manage rights to NEOs, as well as a body of law, including an international court.

Obama Reflects on His Economic Record
1 days ago

Not to be outdone by Jeffrey Goldberg's recent piece in The Atlantic about President Obama's foreign policy, the New York Times Magazine checks in with a longread on the president's economic legacy. In it, Obama is cognizant that the economic reality--73 straight months of growth--isn't matched by public perceptions. Some of that, he says, is due to a constant drumbeat from the right that "that denies any progress." But he also accepts some blame himself. “I mean, the truth of the matter is that if we had been able to more effectively communicate all the steps we had taken to the swing voter,” he said, “then we might have maintained a majority in the House or the Senate.”

Reagan Families, Allies Lash Out at Will Ferrell
1 days ago

Ronald Reagan's children and political allies took to the media and Twitter this week to chide funnyman Will Ferrell for his plans to play a dementia-addled Reagan in his second term in a new comedy entitled Reagan. In an open letter, Reagan's daughter Patti Davis tells Ferrell, who's also a producer on the movie, “Perhaps for your comedy you would like to visit some dementia facilities. I have—I didn’t find anything comedic there, and my hope would be that if you’re a decent human being, you wouldn’t either.” Michael Reagan, the president's son, tweeted, "What an Outrag....Alzheimers is not joke...It kills..You should be ashamed all of you." And former Rep. Joe Walsh called it an example of "Hollywood taking a shot at conservatives again."

Clinton No Longer Running Primary Ads
1 days ago

In a sign that she’s ready to put a longer-than-ex­pec­ted primary battle be­hind her, former Sec­ret­ary of State Hil­lary Clin­ton (D) is no longer go­ing on the air in up­com­ing primary states. “Team Clin­ton hasn’t spent a single cent in … Cali­for­nia, In­di­ana, Ken­tucky, Ore­gon and West Vir­gin­ia, while” Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-VT) “cam­paign has spent a little more than $1 mil­lion in those same states.” Meanwhile, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Sanders’ "lone back­er in the Sen­ate, said the can­did­ate should end his pres­id­en­tial cam­paign if he’s los­ing to Hil­lary Clin­ton after the primary sea­son con­cludes in June, break­ing sharply with the can­did­ate who is vow­ing to take his in­sur­gent bid to the party con­ven­tion in Phil­adelphia.”

Movie Based on ‘Clinton Cash’ to Debut at Cannes
1 days ago

The team behind the bestselling "Clinton Cash"—author Peter Schweizer and Breitbart's Stephen Bannon—is turning the book into a movie that will have its U.S. premiere just before the Democratic National Convention this summer. The film will get its global debut "next month in Cannes, France, during the Cannes Film Festival. (The movie is not a part of the festival, but will be shown at a screening arranged for distributors)." Bloomberg has a trailer up, pointing out that it's "less Ken Burns than Jerry Bruckheimer, featuring blood-drenched money, radical madrassas, and ominous footage of the Clintons."