It’s not often that a senator launches a brutal, frontal assault on a president from his own party. It’s even rarer when he does it just before a national election. But that is exactly what West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin just did to Joe Biden. At issue was Biden’s recent speech attacking coal, a bedrock of the West Virginia economy. Manchin was furious over Biden’s promise to shut down all of America’s coal-fired power plants.
That view might be red meat for Biden’s audience of green-power advocates and rich California donors, but it is poison in West Virginia. And it is those West Virginians who elected Manchin, the only Democrat still standing in a state that is now deep red.
Manchin didn’t just criticize Biden. He blasted him full-bore, and threw the lifeless carcass over his shoulder on the way back to the truck:
President Biden’s comments are not only outrageous and divorced from reality, they ignore the severe economic pain the American people are feeling because of rising energy costs. …Being cavalier about the loss of coal jobs for men and women in West Virginia and across the country who literally put their lives on the line to help build and power this country is offensive and disgusting. The President owes these incredible workers an immediate and public apology and it is time he learn a lesson that his words matter and have consequences.
Shutting down coal-fired plants is hardly a new position for Biden. He said as much while campaigning for president. But why return to that theme just before an election when high energy prices are already a political burden? Some combination of Biden’s usual foot-in-mouth disease, his quest for rich donors, and an effort to spur turnout among base voters.
Biden’s position on coal comes with a high political price tag, not only among West Virginians, who already opposed him, but with average voters nationwide who are being reminded how much they are paying for Democrats’ opposition to fossil fuels as the first heating bills of the season arrive. That’s bad news for Biden and his party, which is why it is not a good issue for him to stress.
What are the political consequences of Manchin’s attack?
The first and most obvious is that it is smart politics in West Virginia, which not only depends on coal but no longer elects Democrats. Manchin has survived solely because of his personal popularity. He is in office in spite of his party label, not because of it. It makes perfect sense for him to disassociate from Biden and the national party, especially on energy issues.
Second, Manchin’s criticism puts Biden in an untenable lose-lose position. If the president apologizes, as Manchin demands, he not only looks weak, he loses the party activists and donors he was appealing to. If he refuses to retract his statement, he hurts Democratic senatorial candidate Tim Ryan, running in Ohio, where coal is a major economic driver in the southeastern part of the state. Ryan will undoubtedly try to distance himself from Biden’s comments, but that takes him off-message and hurts him among the wealthier environmentalist voters who are now a core Democratic constituency. Moreover, Biden’s comments remind Ohioans that electing Ryan will help Democrats keep a Senate majority and allow them to advance Biden’s agenda, including his opposition to fossil fuels.
Third, Manchin’s blast sets the stage for him to switch from “Democrat” to “independent” and possibly caucus with Republicans if they take the Senate or split it 50-50 (counting Manchin as a Democrat). Manchin’s leverage in the current Congress depends entirely on his status as a swing vote, essential for the Democrats to pass legislation. That leverage could disappear after Tuesday, depending on how many seats the Republicans pick up in the Senate. A close split would leave considerable clout in the hands of centrists Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema (both Democrats) and Republicans Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski (if she wins). But if Manchin is thinking of running again in 2024, he’ll surely want to reconsider his affiliation with a party so unpopular in his home state.
As for Biden, a dominant theme of his presidency has become “cleanup in aisle four.” The White House might as well station a permanent clean-up crew there, given how common are the president’s gaffes, fumbles, and misstatements. So too with his unpopular policies, which have driven the vast majority of voters to tell pollsters the country is on the wrong track.
Biden and his party have earned that discontent, and his latest comments remind us why. Voters are likely to show their unhappiness at the ballot box on Tuesday.