Mar 21, 2024 - Podcasts

Sen. Joe Manchin: What's at stake when we lose the center

West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin may have a D next to his name, but he's been known to buck his party on major issues, including climate. In November, the Senator announced his retirement from the Senate, just as other more moderate Senate voices like Kyrsten Sinema and Mitt Romney depart, too. Niala speaks to Sen. Manchin live on stage at the Axios What's Next Summit in Washington, D.C. this week, where he makes his case for capturing voters in the center, and keeping the U.S. involved in oil and gas production.

  • Plus, context from Axios reporters on Sen. Manchin and who might step in to his place.

Guests: Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.); Axios' Alex Thompson and Hans Nichols.

Credits: 1 big thing is produced by Niala Boodhoo, Alexandra Botti, and Jay Cowit. Music is composed by Alex Sugiura and Jay Cowit. You can reach us at [email protected]. You can send questions, comments and story ideas as a text or voice memo to Niala at 202-918-4893.

Watch: The Axios What's Next livestream, including Niala's interview with Sen. Joe Manchin.

NIALA BOODHOO: Senator Joe Manchin has a message for President Joe Biden.

SENATOR JOE MANCHIN: You're going to have a hard time winning if you're way over here. Because that's not where most of us are.

NIALA: With fewer voices speaking for voters in the middle…what happens next?

SEN. MANCHIN: I really think there needs to be a third party movement to bring people back.

NIALA: What's at stake if we lose the center, according to one powerful Senator. I'm Niala Boodhoo. From Axios, this is 1 big thing.

West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin may have a D next to his name, but he's been known to zig when the Democrats zag…on some major issues, including climate. Manchin – who chairs the Energy and Natural Resources Committee – has been a longtime defender of fossil fuels, putting him at odds with much of his party. And with razor thin margins in the Senate in recent years, he's often been the key vote.

Like at the end of 2021, when he effectively killed President Biden's signature Build Back Better Act, enraging Democrats. And in 2022, when he and Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema were the only two Democrats who together voted down filibuster reform. Back in 2018, he was also the only Democrat to vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.

Now, Manchin says he's retiring from the Senate – an announcement he made in November. And he's not alone.

ALEX THOMPSON: You're seeing a lot of the people in the center, or at least the more pragmatic, less ideological members of both parties, bow out.

NIALA: Alex Thompson is National Political Correspondent for Axios.

ALEX: Whether or not it's, uh, Kyrsten Sinema, you're seeing Mitt Romney, even people like Rob Portman of Ohio, especially in the Senate. And there's been a lot of retirements in the House too. And, you know, Manchin is part of a larger exit of people that just don't believe they can get anything done anymore.

NIALA: With those exits, there will be fewer powerful moderate voices in the Senate. And Democrats have a tough road ahead to defend their majority. Manchin's West Virginia Senate seat is now most likely to go to a Republican in that red state, where former president Trump won easily in both 2016 and 2020.

So it makes sense that there's been a lot of talk in Washington lately about a possible independent Senate run for Manchin. I asked him about that – and a whole lot more – when I spoke with him live on stage this week at the third annual Axios What's Next Summit here in D.C. – in our first live event taping for the podcast.

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NIALA: Senator, we want to talk to you about what's next in energy, but I wanted to start with what's next in Congress. You have often taken a position, sometimes opposing your party, prioritizing bipartisan deal making.

You've said your plan is not to run for re election, and I just want to ask when we think about Mitt Romney. Kirsten Sinema, all of these people who are leaving, who do you see taking up the mantle in your place?

MANCHIN: There's so many, there's so much talent there on both sides of the aisle. When you talked about the bipartisan, the reason I've always been bipartisan.

I was a House of Delegates. I was a state senator. I was secretary of state and I was governor. And I think, well, I kept moving up. Now I'm really getting into the big leagues. And then I saw the squabbling going back and forth and everybody else and trying to basically identify the other sides of the enemy.

It went through me. So I've always tried to work together because it's more lasting. The filibuster is what makes the country different than any place else in the world.

NIALA: So that attitude though, who else has that attitude that you just described there?

MANCHIN: Let's just say this. If they know, they know how I was entrenched, what I believe so strongly. I'm not a party person. Okay. So whether you're a Democrat or Republican, I didn't, I didn't look at you. I looked at you as a person that was elected to represent the people from your state and that you really want to do good. There's many of them there. I'm not going to name names because there's some good people and you can probably figure it out who's going to rise. They didn't have to take the flack I was taking.

NIALA: So you're not going to tell us who you want to rise?

MANCHIN: No. Okay. They won't, they don't have to take the flack. So if you don't have to take the flack, someone else is willing to catch the errors. Okay. I was the greatest spear catcher for 14 years.

NIALA: So, did you think at all about running as an independent in the Senate? Is that completely off the table?

MANCHIN: I want to do this as respectfully as I can. I really think there should be term limits. I truly believe in term limits and I'm telling you that for this reason.

I never did believe in term limits years ago. And I was in Southern West Virginia, had to be about two or 300 people in a town hall like this and a beautiful lady stood up in the back and she was elderly. And she says, 'Joe, I really wish you'd support term limits'. So I tried to tell her why I didn't think that that was something we should do, because you lose a lot of the expertise and people that have knowledge.

I went through all the iterations of why you shouldn't have term limits. She looked at me and she says, 'Joe, think about it this way. If we had term limits, maybe we'd get one good term out of you'. I swear to God, I had no comeback. I've been for it ever since. She was exactly correct. We get one good term.

So, I've come to the conclusion. 18 years for the Supreme Court. One 18 year term for Supreme Court. One 6 year term for President. Two 6 year terms for the Senate. And six 2 year terms for the House. That's more than enough, gang. Trust me, that's more than enough. And I think we get better, better outcomes. So, I didn't want another six-year sentence.

NIALA: So you have been talking about a movement of voters in the middle who aren't feeling heard and who are unsatisfied with the choices of the president this year. So do you see any realistic path to a presidency Biden or Donald Trump?

MANCHIN: You're dealing with a duopoly here in Washington.

You have a duopoly. It's a business model. You have a Republican business model and a Democrat business model. And their whole business model is based around division. if we want you to pick a side, okay, and you pick a side and the other side's the enemy. And if I can make the other side more of an enemy, you'll get more active and you'll get more money and you'll be more of an activist.

And the billions and, look at every election, billions and billions more coming in. They don't want it to be changed. There's no reason for us to, to sit down and fix things and work together because it doesn't play into the business model. So I really think there needs to be a third party movement to bring people back.

And it's 55 to 60 percent of us live in center left, center right. You'd like to see the grand old party be grand again. You'd like to see the Democratic Party be responsible and compassionate. So we'd like to see that to come and they're not. They feel homeless and helpless.

NIALA: So how would that, what would that look like? As you said, the system is set up for two parties. So how does a third party movement get in?

MANCHIN: In this room right here, Donald Trump or Joe Biden can't win unless you all pick somebody. And if you're happy with everything you have and the way people have gone, I've said it before. I says, I love my country too much to support or vote for Donald Trump. I know him. Got a long fine. We tried to. He was, we were okay until I voted twice to impeach him, and then he got mad. We had a good relationship, but I don't know what went wrong. (crowd laughs)

And, uh, but, you know, I didn't, I thought the Democrats were wrong to impeach him.

I thought they should have, you know, censored him. Because I knew it was a political trial. We didn't have the votes for it. And it's going to basically, in his personality, who he is, it would just basically give him more gravitas and more energy. And it did. So I said, maybe if you censored him, we could slow him down a little bit and bring him back into more reasonable.

NIALA: So, not supporting Trump-

MANCHIN: -Joe Biden's gone too far left.

NIALA: Joe Biden's gone too far left. What sort of-

MANCHIN: Well, you keep working to bring him back. How do you bring him back off the edge, okay? They both retreated pretty hard. They're playing to their bases. Every time you hear them talk, it's playing to the base. Whether it's energy, whether it's the, whether it's the border, whatever it may be, we got serious problems. You know, the thing that discouraged me more than anything was the border security bill that we had. And in September, my Republican friend says, listen, we're not going to talk about any aid for Ukraine or any, or,for, uh, Taiwan or Israel until we secure our border.

And I agree with my Republican friend. Let's secure our border and then we can deal with the aid that needs to be and we had to get Ukraine aid, so, they were all for it. And McConnell picked James Langford - who's a beautiful person the most I think one of the better human beings that we have in the Senate. And I thought, but Jim sometimes cannot get to the, James can't get to the final deal because it's not good enough, never perfect enough. Well, he finally did. It took a little bit longer, but he got a good piece of legislation. On Wednesday, Sunday we thought everybody was lined up.

Donald Trump said something on Monday, it's not good enough. It's not a good bill. We start getting people getting wiggly. On Tuesday, we knew we were in trouble and on Wednesday they didn't vote. And I'm thinking, how can you do that? I never seen anything like that in my life because these are people I work with. These are my friends. And they let one person scare them away from doing what was right.

NIALA: So what is then your parting advice to your colleagues? When you say, how could they do that? Because how do you-

MANCHIN: That's why term limits. That's why, that's why I'm more committed to term limits now than ever before. Those who were in a second, their last term, the one good term they had left, and let's say it's coming to an end, they would have been able to do the right thing more so than thinking, well, what's the future? I got to run again, this and that. I mean, honestly, this is not the best job I've ever had.

NIALA: What was?

MANCHIN: Governor. If you're in public service, you can be governor. Take it. You'll love it. You know why you get up every morning, you can help somebody, you can change someone's life. So

NIALA: Are you gonna run for governor?

MANCHIN: No. No. I, I'm done. I'm, I'm, I've been 42 years. I'm looking forward to my next life to where I can help people and with mistakes I've made. So I hope them help them not to make the same mistakes. Some knowledge I have, I can share with them what I think would be helpful. And this will be the first time in 42 years I've ever had, when I'm finished in January, that I ever have control of my schedule. For 42 years, I've never been able to schedule, whether it was something for the kids or even a vacation at times, things get interrupted and this, that's public life and I never thought I'd ever be in it either that long.

NIALA: In a moment – more of my conversation recorded live this week with Senator Joe Manchin. This is 1 big thing, from Axios.

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Welcome back to 1 big thing from Axios – I'm Niala Boodhoo. This week when I spoke to West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin – at the Axios What's Next Summit here in Washington D.C.-- he had a lot to say about appealing to voters in the middle, and getting president Biden to do the same. One area where Senator Manchin thought Biden could make that happen? Energy.

NIALA: You were encouraging President Biden in an op ed yesterday to celebrate the administration's energy wins. You've been a frequent critic of the Biden administration's energy policies. So can I ask if you could distill those frustrations down to an Axios length, what keeps you so frustrated with the Biden administration?

MANCHIN: The implementation of the bill. I couldn't vote for the BBB bill. I tried for eight months and couldn't get there, so that bill, when I didn't vote for it, it was killed. Everybody got extremely mad at me, all the progressives and a lot of the Democrats across the country.

And then three months later, I come back and do this bill. Why did I do this bill and I killed that bill? They're two different completely. The bipartisan infrastructure bill was pulled out of the BBB. Because we needed infrastructure. But they were trying to throw the good, the bad, and the ugly all into one because they think that helps get it through.

And it was just too big. When I finally told the president, Mr. President, you and I are from the same, the same generation to a certain extent, you know, a couple of years different. And anyway, I said, I grew up with John Kennedy in my mind. That's not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country. We pass this piece of legislation, which you say is your marquee legislation, the BBB. You're going to change the psychic of the nation to how much more can my country do for me? I said, sir, I wasn't raised that way. I don't believe that.

I can't do it. So that's what happened there. And then the Ukraine war started. Russia used energy as a weapon and we couldn't help our allies. We weren't producing energy and this administration didn't want it to do any more fossil if they didn't have to. We're producing more energy today than ever in the history of the United States of America. We're producing more energy than any place else in the world. We are energy secured.

NIALA: But you're not hearing, to your point, you're not hearing that-

MANCHIN: When have you heard the president say we're energy secured? When have you heard their president say that that piece of IRA, that this marquee legislation, paid down two hundred and thirty billion dollars of debt? First time in 30 years we ever had a piece of legislation that some of the money, at least a third of the money, was dedicated to debt reduction with thirty four and a half trillion dollars of debt we have.

They don't talk about those things. And I said, please take credit. We did it. You had to sign it. We wrote it, my staff and I wrote it, on the energy portion, and he had to sign that, and they knew. The frustration I have is implementation. They're trying to implement a bill they didn't pass. And when they get out of their lane, I say, you know, out of their lane, we try to bring them back in.

NIALA: So you're talking about implementation. I want to ask you just one last question about messaging. What do you think? We've talked about energy. What else do you think Joe Biden needs to be saying right now?

MANCHIN: I've said like you and I are sitting here and I said, Mr President, I want you to be the person in 2020 that you said that you were and I've known for the last 30 years. You were always willing to make a deal. You're always in the center. I've worked with you, I knew. Now all of a sudden, you're clear over. There's no deal to be made because you've already been pushed to the side over there. And you're playing to basically the same 20%. And there's nothing wrong with that.

But it's, I said, you're going to have a hard time winning if you're way over here. Because that's not where most of us are. Don't be afraid to say we've had to build pipelines to safely move product. But just say, listen, if you've got a better way, please sit down and tell me about it and I'll try it. But right now, this is the best we can do. And we are doing better. I'll give you an example, Venezuela was allowed back into the market, right? they produce 80 percent more pollution when they're producing oil. The United States of America, we're the cleanest production.

So if we can displace them, it's better off for the climate, world climate. We knew ghost ship, ghost ships, the ghost oil strips are coming out of Iran. We knew that. And we know that the resources, the money they get from that, they're using it to wreak havoc around the world, terror support, but you want to keep the prices low.

So people don't want to say that, Oh, we're producing oil in America. Cause they're afraid that people get mad at you, but they want to use it. They got mad when the gas was 5 and one cent a gallon. Had to bring it back down. So, you know, and you want EVs. Well, don't enslave a country and a family in the Congo that basically is living in horrific conditions because you want to drive an EV.

We have to do it here. And we can do it with better technology, better working conditions, all these things. I'm just trying to find that balance. A lot of stuff doesn't make sense. I always said if I can't go home and explain, I can't vote for it. You can put a gun to my head and we'll play Russian roulette with six bullets and I'm okay.

NIALA: Okay, well unfortunately we're gonna have to leave it at that, Senator Joe Manchin. They're giving me a big wrap up here-

MANCHIN: -that's a wrap. That's a hell of a wrap, isn't it?

NIALA: All right, let me ask you one last question-

MANCHIN: Forget about the six bullets, gang.

NIALA: Let me ask you one quick last question then. The conversations we were having earlier today about permitting reform legislation.

MANCHIN: We're going to get it. I am determined.

NIALA: Do you plan to release a bill anytime soon?

MANCHIN: We've got one ready and we're working with our Republican friends and everything. And I'm doing-

NIALA: What do you think the sticking point is?

MANCHIN: Well, you've got two national campaign campaigns going on. If one of the national prominent people that are running for president says something that they don't like it because it's just not right enough, good enough, or, you know.

The Constitution, we're trying to do a perfect, you know, more perfect union. We're trying to make a more perfect bill. We've got to do something in permitting to get something done. All this goes for naught. 2032, it all goes away if we don't get these things matured where they can stand on their own.

That's why we're putting all the incentives to them now. But it's just a balance, you know, and then you got the border has to be taken care of. Ukraine, we can't let Ukraine go through this. If it comes through the spring and we haven't helped Ukraine, God help us. That'll be the worst atrocity in history that your children or grandchildren will be reading about. That we've done.

NIALA: Senator Manchin, thank you for your time.

MANCHIN: Thank you, I appreciate it. Thank you all.

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NIALA: OK, so before we go – when I asked Senator Manchin early in our interview who might take up his mantle, he said:

MANCHIN: I'm not gonna name names because there's, there's some good people and you can probably figure it out who who's going to rise

NIALA: …and Hans Nichols has been reporting on Manchin for years. So I put that to him.

HANS NICHOLS: You know, it's a great question…maybe it's really obvious if you're a senator and you walk the halls and you try to cut deals all the time.

I would guess Senator Langford, on the Republican side, as a starting point, I'd look at the senators that were on that bipartisan infrastructure bill and it really brought that together. So Capito, his colleague from West Virginia, I think was on there. Susan Collins has always mentioned, But I think The broader point is that the center is evaporating in the United States Senate, in the United States Senate, and Manchin's very retirement speaks more loudly than anything on that, which is to say, he doesn't think the will hold, and he doesn't think, Sinema is apparently in the same camp. So maybe someone will come up with it, but the incentives, in the party, and both parties with concern about primary challenges, doesn't necessarily argue in favor of that.

NIALA: Hans, one last question. You have covered numerous presidential campaigns. As we think about what Joe Manchin said and as you've talked about this evaporating center, does that matter for a presidential election? Because the conventional wisdom is that you can't win a presidential election if you don't have the center, right?

HANS: Yes and no. It reminds me the most of 2004, where, you know, George Bush, George W. Bush, then sort of tacked the right on some key cultural issues. Now he had run his first term more as a, you know, a compassionate conservative and tried to make feints to the center.

It is going to be a base election. But a base election doesn't mean you could ignore the mythical suburban swing voters or wherever they are. And there are still eight to 10 percent of the electorate, however, you know, you want to slice and dice it, that go, that flips, that went for, say, Obama in 08, sort of was with Obama in 12 and then in 16 went to Trump and then went back to Biden.

So there are swing voters, there are fewer of them, but you still need to appeal to them while also revving up your base. And that's what 2024 is going to look like. And it, you know, could be a little discombobulating for reporters. But, you know, could also be dynamic.

NIALA: Hans Nichols covers politics and the White House for Axios.

And that's it for this week's edition of 1 Big Thing.

The 1 big thing team includes Supervising Producer Alexandra Botti and Sound Engineer Jay Cowit, who also composed and produced our music along with Alex Sugiura. Aja Whitaker-Moore is Axios' Executive Editor, and Sara Keuhalani Goo is Axios' Editor in Chief.

I'm Niala Boodhoo. Thanks for listening, stay safe, and we'll see you back here next Thursday.

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