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
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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.

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