Joe Manchin could be Biden's biggest problem — but there's a sign of hope in his latest statement

Joe Manchin could be Biden's biggest problem — but there's a sign of hope in his latest statement
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) // CBS News

We seem to be returning to the idea that the president has a Joe Manchin problem. The latest comes from my friend Greg Sargent. The Post columnist said Tuesday the United States senator from West Virginia seems to have a distorted view of recent political history. In a letter co-written with Republican colleague Lisa Murkowski, of Alaska, Manchin urges the Senate to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act. This is the part that most worried Greg: "Protecting Americans' access to democracy has not been a partisan issue for the past 56 years, and we must not allow it to become one now."

Greg read this as an empirical statement and based his article on that interpretation. While Manchin said voting isn't a partisan issue, it has very much become partisan, Greg said, and the Democratic Party must come to terms with that political reality. "Here's the bottom line," he wrote. "Protecting access to democracy will indeed require a partisan solution. That is, such protections will be implemented almost entirely by one party, if not entirely by it, or they won't be implemented at all."

Before I go on, let me say Manchin's and Murkowski's proposal, if passed, would do what many liberal commentators said should have been done after the United States Supreme Court gutted a section of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. That section required states with histories of racial segregation (read: Southern states) to "pre-clear" with federal authorities any change to state and local election law. The court invalidated that section in 2013 on grounds that it was prejudicial against those states. The solution was simple. The Congress should require "pre-clearance" of all 50 states.

That's what Manchin's and Murkowski's proposal would require. That might not be enough, as Greg argues, but it would be a lot in that it would bring us back to the state of election law before 2013, which is to say, before the Republicans at the state level began squeezing their electorates down to sizes preferential to the Republicans. Again, it's fair to say that's insufficient. But it's just as fair to say, as Vox's Ian Millhiser said last week, that Manchin's and Murkowski's proposal "could be even more aggressive than a parallel proposal offered by Democratic leaders." That's the one Greg prefers.

I don't know which is better. I do know two liberal writers for whom I have affection and respect have differing, though not opposing, views on Manchin's and Murkowski's proposal. I also know Greg's reading of their letter is an interpretation. There's another way of reading it. "Protecting Americans' access to democracy has not been a partisan issue for the past 56 years," Manchin wrote, "and we must not allow it to become one now." You could read this, as Greg does, as an empirical statement, as one of fact. That would suggest, as Greg asserted, that his view is "an astounding distortion of recent political history" and that Manchin himself "does not want to confront the existence of this fundamental difference" between the two parties and their approaches to voting and democracy. That would suggest the president has a Joe Manchin problem.

But you can also read this as a normative statement, as a moral assertion. As such, Manchin seems to be drawing a bright line, one he can be held politically accountable for. In this reading, Manchin recognizes access to democracy is (at least) threatening to become a partisan issue and that the Senate must stop that from happening. When read this way, you can see fresh possibilities. Perhaps Manchin isn't standing in the way, as many believe. Perhaps Manchin is laying the groundwork for making a decision he knows must be made while also knowing he must appear to be forced into making it—not for partisan reasons but because making that decision is the right thing to do.

What that decision will be, I don't know. (I suppose it could be nixing the filibuster.) What I do know is Manchin's and Murkowski's proposal would need 10 Republicans. That's hardly realistic. (After all, only seven were willing to convict Donald Trump.) I think Manchin knows it. (I mean, he can't be that daft.) Moreover, Murkowski herself told reporters she had not discussed their proposal with Republican colleagues before releasing their letter. This, to me, suggests both senators know where their proposal is going, which is to say nowhere in a hurry, not with the filibuster still in full effect. What have they accomplished? The all-important appearance of being reasonable.

I think Greg and everyone who agrees with Greg are right to raise hell. But I still don't think we have a Joe Manchin problem. Not yet. Right now, what I see is a conservative Democratic senator from conservative Republican West Virginia providing critics and allies with multiple ways of interpreting his rhetoric so that in the end, whatever the end is, he will come out looking like a regular guy just trying to do the right thing for his state and his country. Manchin has come through before. I hope he will again.

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