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Manchin Is Using Democrats’ Fears of Third-Party Run to His Political Advantage

Joe Manchin is encouraging rumors of a possible presidential run to keep Democrats twisted around his little finger.

Sen. Joe Manchin looks on during a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on the 2024 proposed budget on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on May 16, 2023.

In recent weeks, West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, who has feuded with Joe Biden pretty much from the start of the president’s administration, has begun publicly campaigning against the $400 billion Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) — a piece of legislation crammed with environmental investments and thus a critical piece of Biden’s efforts to reduce global warming.

Despite the fact that Manchin himself was instrumental in crafting this legislation in 2022 — after a year in which he opposed and blocked the far larger, multitrillion-dollar package that Biden had initially sought — he has, repeatedly, threatened to vote to overturn the law. Normally, this would have no weight; after all, even if Congress voted to undo the legislation, Biden would, almost certainly, veto it.

But this is the season of political hostage taking, and it’s entirely possible that congressional Republicans — knowing the U.S. will run out of money to pay its bills within a matter of days or weeks — will refuse to raise the debt ceiling unless the Biden administration agrees to a rollback of at least parts of the IRA.

If Manchin throws his support behind this gambit, suddenly the GOP can say there is a “bipartisan” effort afoot to find a way to raise the debt ceiling, but that it’s being stymied by an overly ideological, radically environmentalist administration. In an era where optics are vastly important, this could seriously weaken Biden’s negotiating position with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy.

Manchin’s beef? That promised fossil fuel investments for new leases in the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska, and on public lands on the U.S. mainland aren’t materializing quickly enough. This, despite the fact that the administration recently held an auction for leases in New Mexico and (to a lesser extent) in Kansas that yielded $80 million, a process that antagonized environmentalists yet was seen as small potatoes by the pro-oil and gas lobby. For a senator from a coal-producing state (and for a senator whose own personal fortune is tied up in coal investments), not putting more leases up for auction is a cardinal sin; and for a fiscal conservative of Manchin’s bent, so too is the finding that electric vehicle tax credits embedded in the legislation are going to cost tens of billions of dollars more over the coming years than the initial estimates suggested would be the case.

The 75-year-old senator relishes his role as a kingmaker in a narrowly divided Senate. A Democrat from one of the most pro-Trump states in the county — Donald Trump got 68.6 percent of the West Virginia vote in 2020 — he survives politically largely by casting himself as a maverick, as a self-proclaimed “centrist,” a bridge-builder, in a party that he routinely lambasts for having veered too far to the left.

Manchin has always been a master of the strategy of political survival. In 2024, however, he faces a difficult reelection campaign. His opponent will likely be either current Gov. Jim Justice, a one-time Democrat who jumped ship in 2017 and became a GOP stalwart, and who is now backed by Mitch McConnell; or it will be Congressman Alex Mooney, a hard-right member of the Freedom Caucus. It’s possible that these two will do each other enough damage that they provide a glide-path for Manchin’s reelection; but it’s at least equally possible that this most Trumpian part of the country finally aligns its senate representation with its party preferences and sends Manchin packing.

Given his political vulnerability, the senator appears to be hedging his bets. He has relentlessly criticized Biden’s leadership in recent months and has gone out of his way to praise House Speaker McCarthy over his proposals around reducing spending as a condition for raising the country’s debt ceiling. When Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema left the Democratic Party late last year, Manchin played coy when asked by journalists whether he, too, was thinking of joining her as an independent.

From the get-go, Manchin has been a thorn in the side of the Biden administration. Now, he is making increasingly noisy political demands, and is also threatening to jump ship entirely — to leave the Senate (which would almost certainly hand the open West Virginia seat to a Republican) and to announce a third-party presidential run, under the banner of the nebulously named “No Labels” group. That organization, with which Manchin has had a long-term affiliation, is currently working to get on the ballot in all 50 states; many Democrats fear that if someone with the name recognition of Joe Manchin runs, he could serve as the ultimate spoiler, making possible Trump’s return to the White House and shattering the political system beyond repair. Manchin surely knows how much such a scenario terrifies Democrats, and he appears willing to milk the situation to his maximum political advantage.

That a man of Manchin’s unsavory politics has such staying power within the Democratic Party speaks to a slew of weaknesses within that party: In worrying that candidates like Wisconsin’s Mandela Barnes were too progressive for local voters, and in thus not adequately supporting their candidacies, Democrats ensured that they would lose eminently winnable Senate seats in 2022. As a result, the Democratic Party ended up with a one-seat majority, all but ensuring that Manchin would be able to exert an outsized role. In being unwilling to truly take control of the debt ceiling issue, Democratic leaders have allowed the GOP, and its sideline supporters such as Senator Manchin, to control the political narrative.

Manchin likely won’t run for president — not because he has any love for Biden, but because he has infinite love for Manchin, and a third-party run for the presidency would likely be political suicide. But that doesn’t mean he won’t dangle this threat for as long as he can in order to bend the party to his political priorities.

The longer the debt ceiling crisis continues, the more Biden needs to be able to rely on a unified Democratic Party to stand up to GOP hostage-taking strategies. And in such a situation, Joe Manchin seems set on extracting an ever-higher price for his continued, and begrudging, affiliation with a party whose leaders and whose values he claims to be so out of step with.

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