Joe Manchin’s Small Washington Dreams

Joe Manchin
Sen. Joe Manchin. Photo: Patrick Smith/Getty Images
Tara Palmeri
July 28, 2022

In Washington, political motivation is usually as transparent as the morning fog. Yes, of course, it is certainly true that many bright-eyed altruists descend upon the capital every year with a song in their heart, hoping to make a difference for the American people, slavishly devoting themselves to the bureaucratic arts in the hopes that incremental change puts food on the table and validates the Founding Fathers’ almighty ambitions. But then there’s everyone else—the people with an angle or an endgame, motivated by money or legacy, eagerly happy to climb the ladder or politely drop a banana peel in front of a peer, albeit cloaked in the name of democracy. And then there’s Joe Manchin.

Manchin remains one of the more peculiar swamp creatures of his generation—a former college quarterback, career civil servant and red state Democrat who has made gobs of cash through a scrap coal business and has somehow become the most powerful person in Washington, continually vexing Joe Biden’s agenda and publicly sending Ron Klain to the back of the classroom. In the past week alone, Manchin and Chuck Schumer (the true Ross and Rachel of the Senate) got back together after a full year of breakups and half-hearted reunions to cobble together a $740 billion reconciliation package that they wisely rebranded as the “Inflation Reduction Act of 2022,” waiving off any whiff of the transformational $3 trillion F.D.R.-inspired Build Back Better bill that Klain crafted and pushed, frankly a bit too hard. 

The bill was a solid victory for Biden, but a true demonstration of Manchin’s juice. He refused to come back to the drawing board for months after the White House put out a searing statement that singled him out, viewing it as too personal, even for him, even after all his grandstanding during the legislative process. This is a man that is prone to flattery—something the White House probably should have employed a bit more gingerly rather than grabbing their rhetorical knives. That’s why they had little to no role in crafting the final product. Since then, Manchin has been taking a victory lap about inflation. It appears he was right to kill that gangbusters deal last fall, and was convinced to support this deal after a private pow wow with Larry Summers, the prescient economist and Biden administration irritant—a detail that somehow made it into The Washington Post.