Joe Manchin is hard to figure out. He likes to see himself as a moderate who thinks independently of party and ideology. Many desperately want to believe that.
His recent decision not to seek reelection as a senator from West Virginia has been spun to meet the interests, might I say delusions, of the never-Trump and not-Biden tribes.
Was it a principled decision driven by the insurmountable divisiveness in Washington, a climate in which he feels powerless? Perhaps. I hesitate to question another’s motives so I will give his principles the benefit of the doubt, at least partially. I wonder, though, how much the political climate in West Virginia focused his attention. His quest for reelection may look more like Don Quixote than the knights of the Round Table. I’m sure he can read the polls as well as anyone.
So the question being asked is if he will run for president as an independent or third-party candidate? This strikes fear into the hearts of Democrats who know the history of third parties, a history of serving as a spoiler to the major party the self-proclaimed independent left. But hope springs eternal, so there are other Democrats who think he will harm Trump more than Biden, preventing their political bete noire from winning.
I can read history too, so I tend to give higher credibility to the scared Democrats. That, however, may be for the simple reason that I don’t see Manchin as remotely resembling a classical moderate.
How moderate is he? What do the facts say?
The left-leaning Axios calls Manchin the Senate’s most conservative member but that is damning with faint praise if his score with conservative vote tracking organization’s is any indication. The American Conservative Union scores him at 27 percent lifetime in his voting record. That’s not conservative by any reasonable definition, although it may look that way to those who hang around the left end of the ideological spectrum.
Heritage Foundation’s political action arm gives Manchin a 22 percent lifetime score but shows a 33 percent score for the current session. The same question holds: Is this shift from principle or from poll reading?
Looking at left-liberal-progressive side of his record, ProgressivePunch ranks him last among Democrat Senators with a 69 percent lifetime score. Note that this score tracks inversely with the conservative groups above. One might conclude that there is validity in these scoring systems.
One oddity is that ProgressivePunch reports Manchin to have shifted slightly to the left in the current session of Congress. Heritage instead sees him as shifting slightly to the right. These organizations don’t track all the same bills but this is an interesting blip in the data.
These data would suggest that Manchin is not a true moderate, at least in the textbook sense. He is viewed as such by his own party; note his last place ranking with ProgressivePunch. One would expect a moderate to have voting scores much closer to 50 percent, but that may be an unrealistic expectation given the extremity of our political discourse.
So much for Manchin’s moderation; what about his independence? Here again, he scores better than his peers but he still supports President Biden’s agenda 88 percent of the time according to FiveThirtyEight, a website for data wonks. Is this an indication of party discipline or agreement with the President’s agenda? Whichever, it argues against the claim of independence.
All this merely confirms what simple reflection observes. As people move toward either of the political extremes, the subjective mid-point appears to shift with them. Most people see themselves as moderately liberal or conservative so that increases the apparent extremism of those on the other side.
This is just my opinion but I’ve enough empirical evidence to hand in support. Just look at the media for example. How often do you read or hear terms like “right ring” or “extreme right” versus “left wing” or “extreme left.” I am too lazy to go on the internet and do a count on these terms in the New York Times or Washington Post but I am confident of what I will find.
As just one data point the Washington Post described Kamala Harris as a “pragmatic moderate” when she was selected as Joe Biden’s running mate, this being the same Kamala Harris who scored a perfect 100 on several liberal scales and zero on conservative ones. This says more about the Post’s bias than Harris’ ideology.
All of which brings to mind William Butler Yeats’ haunting poem “The Second Coming” and these lines “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”
He wrote this in 1920. If he were writing today, I expect the words to be unchanged.
Mark Franke, M.B.A., an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review and its book reviewer, is formerly an associate vice-chancellor at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.