The Last of the Joe Manchin Party-Switch Saga

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It’s a topic that hasn’t gone away and apparently won’t be anytime soon: Could Sen. Joe Manchin III (DW.Va.) ever switch sides.

The latest entry in the saga comes from a new book by Alexander Burns and Jonathan Martin of The New York Times. The two report that Manchin had dinner with some Senate Republicans in early 2021 and responded to their pleas for him to join by suggesting he might indeed – if not for Mitch McConnell.

You don’t have to join our caucus, [Senate No. 2 John] Coin told him. Just become independent and caucus with us.

Thune suggested Manchin would likely be rewarded for taking such a step: You could write your own post, the South Dakotan told him. Chair a committee, we’ll help you raise funds for your campaign.

Manchin listened to them and gave Thune a politically deft response.

John, he said, if you were the boss, I would.

It wasn’t a hard no, but Manchin wasn’t about to put Mitch McConnell back as head of the Senate.

Manchin has now responded to the report, suggesting his response was lighter than it appears on the page.

“Not that I can remember-” Manchin told CNN’s Morgan Rimmer, before changing course: “No, we talk all the time, we have dinner together and all that. No, they are always joking.

Coin also suggested the exchange wasn’t that serious, saying he took Manchin’s comment with “good humor”:”Many of these conversations are obviously light.”

And the thing is, that might ring true if you visualize the scene and put your mind to it. You have a group of GOP senators who would love to see Manchin switch parties — because it would bring the Senate 50-50 back under their control — but also know it’s probably a long shot for the same reason. So you feel it talking about things in a maybe light-hearted way, and Manchin offers a kind of vaguely non-committal and light-hearted response — using it to flatter someone he really likes. (“John Thune is the most decent human being, a good friend of mine,” Manchin added Thursday.)

Even that, however, should probably make Democrats a little wary. It’s come back many times for a reason, and we keep hearing that Manchin may have nurtured this a little more seriously than some would like – or at least didn’t stop it altogether.

Last October, Mother Jones reported that Manchin was telling associates he was considering going “independent American” if Democrats didn’t cut their $3.5 trillion spending bill about in half. In response to the report, Manchin offered colorful words essentially calling the report nonsense. “I have no control over rumours, guys,” he said. “No rumour-checking.”

But the next day, Manchin confirmed that he had in fact discussed going freelance – in his story, for in fact help the democrats. He said he had offered to do so, but still caucusing with Democrats, if his status as a moderate Democrat from West Virginia posed problems for his party.

In December, people close to Manchin told Axios that if he switched parties, it would more likely be to become an independent from the Democratic caucus than to become a Republican.

What the new book confirms is that Manchin is happy to hear that, and he’s not exactly offering an outright “no” — which, if you’re him, is 100% the right policy approach. Manchin would be foolish not to consider this one way or another, as it gives him leverage over a party whose activists have tried to turn him into public enemy No. 1 by thwarting the president’s agenda. Biden and from the left. (These people would do well to understand how much they need Manchin, rather than the other way around). . And the ability to switch parties also gives him a path to follow, should he begin to fear losing re-election as a Democrat in a state that chose Donald Trump by nearly 40 points.

In some ways, what Manchin says today is irrelevant. Until it happens or it gets very close, he’s not going to come out and say, “Yeah, I’m seriously considering it.”

In March 2009, Democrats were using the press from across the court to get Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) to cross over to their side, given the threat he faced in his upcoming primary. But Specter said he would run as a Republican, and former Pennsylvania Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell — somewhat like Thune today — suggested Specter wasn’t really on the cusp of change; he said the senator was “bound and determined to remain a Republican.” Specter himself told me at the time that the only last resort he could think of was to become an independent who always caucused with Republicans. When I wrote about it, his office was appalled that I treated even this watered-down party switch as a serious possibility.

Just over a month later, Specter was a Democrat.

By the time you say you’re really thinking about it, you’re probably about to. This was certainly the case with Jim Jeffords in 2001.

If Democrats can find any solace in this book passage, it’s this: It suggests that, insofar as Manchin has taken the pick seriously, it’s less likely with McConnell in charge. And there is no indication, as of now, that McConnell won’t be in charge of the GOP for the foreseeable future. But that dynamic could change if and when Manchin isn’t able to give McConnell a majority by making the jump — like if Republicans regain the Senate in November.

Either way, Manchin is in charge, as he well knows.


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