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Analysis

Criticize Manchin. But there is a line no progressive should cross or it will all blow up

Senator Joe Manchin.
Senator Joe Manchin.Stefani Reynolds/Pool

All week, liberals have been dumping on West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat. It’s logical enough.

On Sunday he not only reaffirmed his belief the Senate filibuster should remain in place, but also said he opposed a sweeping voting rights law that many on the left believe is the only way to protect American Democracy from Republican voting restrictions. (Republicans don’t view the stakes as that dramatic, and none are backing that voting rights law.)

The moment Manchin’s op-ed came out, however, it became clear to progressives that few of the many items on their agenda have a shot at becoming law, especially if a 60 vote filibuster threshold stays in place. It effectively means at least 10 Republicans need to agree on any piece of legislation that’s unrelated to the federal budget.

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Here is the thing: politically speaking it is good for Manchin to be rebuked by the left. He is, after all, a Democrat representing a state that went for President Trump by 40 points. When he first ran for the Senate in 2010, he ran an ad in which he used a rifle to shoot through an environmental bill, allowing him to brag that he was endorsed by both the National Rifle Association and that, as West Virginia governor, he sued the Environmental Protection Agency.

No, he is not a normal Democrat. Then again if he were a normal Democrat he may not get reelected in West Virginia anymore. So every time someone like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez criticizes him, Manchin likely doesn’t wince but asks an aide how they can get the quote on a future television advertisement.

However every time progressives express their fury at Manchin ― whether it be trying to organize a primary challenge, lambasting him as a Republican, or otherwise ostracizing him ― they need to remember there is a line they cannot cross.

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They cannot push him to change parties.

It is unclear where the line is for Manchin on being shunned inside his party enough to abandon Democrats. A month ago he said he wasn’t thinking of flipping parties, but it says a lot that he was even asked the question and that he answered it seriously.

Democrats only control a 50-50 Senate because Vice President Harris can cast a tie-breaking vote. If Manchin were to wake up one day and tell angry Democrats that “you are right and I am actually a Republican” then that would give Republicans a 51-49 majority. This would flip control of every committee and put Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell in charge of what comes up for a vote on the Senate floor. In that situation, no one would bother counting how many Senators supported a big voting rights bill since McConnell would not even bring it to the floor for a vote. And any judicial nominees Biden might send to the Senate would need to get through McConnell, too.

This has happened in recent Senate history. In 2001, Vermont Senator Jim Jeffords left the Republican Party and became an independent who caucused with Democrats, flipping control of the Senate in the first year of Republican George W. Bush’s presidency.

It has also happened in West Virginia, where sitting Governor Jim Justice was elected as a Democrat, and then a year later flipped to be a Republican, a move that ensured he won reelection in a landslide.

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Amid the onslaught of criticism this week, Manchin doesn’t appear to be running to the Republican Party. He has met privately with civil rights groups and gun control advocates. His staff is reportedly constantly talking with the White House, on Tuesday night he had dinner with a national teachers union president which are things that likely wouldn’t happen if he were to change political parties.

In other words, while he might not be everyone’s favorite Democrat, ensuring that he remains a Democrat should be the top priority of any progressive.


James Pindell can be reached at james.pindell@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell.