Everyone of a certain age can remember what they were doing when they heard about the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. But few can probably recall the same about Antonin Scalia’s death.
It was Feb. 13, 2016, and the news broke over my car radio during a California vacation. The conservative U.S. Supreme Court justice had died in his sleep a month short of his 80th birthday after a day of quail hunting in Texas.
Gosh, I recall thinking to myself that day, with Barack Obama in office for nearly another year, Scalia’s death should mark a shift in the ideological balance of the high court.
How long ago that seems and how naïve I was.
What we got instead was the audacious violation of political fair play by the Republican Party as Mitch McConnell, then-U.S. Senate majority leader, simply refused to consider Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland.
In political terms, what followed was the most awful of perfect storms. Donald Trump was elected president and during his four years appointed three far-right justices to the high court, two of whom, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett, are intellectual lightweights and radical ideologues.
Their lifetime appointments make it likely that the nation’s preeminent court will make decisions around racial and social justice, voting rights, health care, and other issues that are monstrously — and yet ever-increasingly — out of step with rising and more tolerant generations of Americans. And there will be nothing anyone can do about it.
Which brings me, indirectly, to Joe Manchin. The controversial Democratic senator from West Virginia recently announced he will support President Biden’s nominee, Ketanji Brown Jackson, to the high court. She will be the first Black woman in its 233-year history.
As with everything Biden has tried to do, Manchin has veto authority in the U.S. Senate, where the partisan divide is 50-50 and the GOP leadership refuses to back Biden on anything. The only way Democrats win is by getting all 50 votes and having Vice President Kamala Harris break ties. (Yes, it appears that a couple of Republicans will vote for Jackson, but even that is likely influenced by Manchin’s support making confirmation a fait accompli.)
Anyway, on most things, that makes Manchin the de facto “decider,” as President George W. Bush haughtily said in 2006 while defending his embattled Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld.
So Manchin’s support of Jackson is a big, historic deal and she appears certain to be confirmed with some late-breaking Republican support.
“I am confident Judge Jackson is supremely qualified and has the disposition necessary to serve as our nation’s next Supreme Court Justice,” Manchin said in his statement.
Manchin pointed to Jackson’s “exemplary” career and record and said her experience provided her with “a unique perspective that will serve her well on our nation’s highest court,” as quoted in the Washington Post.
“During our meeting, she was warm and gracious,” Manchin continued. “On top of her impressive resume, she has the temperament to make an exceptional jurist. Notably, Judge Jackson and her family spend a great deal of time in West Virginia and her deep love of our state and commitment to public service were abundantly clear.”
That’s the good news.
The bad — and I suppose ironic — news is that two days after Manchin’s endorsement, the New York Times published a 4,000-word exposé documenting in granular detail exactly how Manchin has leveraged his lifetime of — let’s put quote marks around this — “public service” to make many millions for himself and his family.
The saga began in 1987, Times reporters Christopher Flavelle and Julie Tate reported, after Manchin had been elected to the West Virginia state senate, a part-time job that paid $6,500 a year. The family’s carpet business was struggling at the time, the story said, and Manchin stepped in to help developers navigate government hoops to build a power plant.
“Then he did something beyond routine constituent services,” Flavelle and Tate wrote. “He went into business with the … power plant.”
Through the years Manchin has used his government positions to make millions through coal industry connections, according to the Times. The investigation doesn’t just suggest Manchin’s political career has been tainted by conflict of interest, but to fundamentally define it.
The Times’ characterization was more subtle: “While the fact that Mr. Manchin owns a coal business is well-known, an examination by The New York Times offers a more detailed portrait of the degree to which Mr. Manchin’s business has been interwoven with his official actions.”
To progressives for whom climate change is the ultimate issue, it gets worse, of course. Manchin has repeatedly blocked Biden’s efforts to speed the country’s transition to wind, solar and other forms of clean energy and away from coal, oil and gas. He recently joined Republicans in calling for more fossil fuel production in reaction to the war in Ukraine amid calls to boycott Russian oil.
On all of this, I find myself furious, though not singularly at Manchin. Does he exemplify what an unapologetically self-interested politician looks like? You bet.
But nearly 69% of West Virginia voters backed Trump in 2020. Manchin, the lone elected statewide Democrat, is almost certainly the best Democrats can hope for in the state, whatever Sen. Bernie Sanders thinks. In January, the Vermont senator, furious at Manchin, said he would consider backing a primary opponent against Manchin.
Ooh, bet that makes Manchin quiver. In West Virginia, Manchin could fund-raise off that threat.
No, Democrats need to focus elsewhere, where winning senate elections seems realistic. There are now only six states with “split delegations,” where the state’s two senators are from opposing parties, the fewest in history. Wisconsin is among them. Democrats in our state should keep asking themselves how they managed to lose to GOP Sen. Ron Johnson not once but twice.
The most winnable Senate seats currently held by Republicans this year are Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Florida, Ohio and Missouri, according to the latest CNN analysis.
Democrats should go all-in behind charismatic center-left candidates who understand and show compassion around mainstream economic issues. Those candidates should then relentlessly contrast themselves with radical Republicans who focus on culture war issues.
That is the only path back I can see to escape the status quo — one in which Democrats can only get what Joe Manchin gives them. ￼