Joe Manchin is being ground into the dust of history by just one man, and it’s Joe Manchin
Mark Sumner – February 08, 2022
There’s a moment early in the film version of Lawrence of Arabia where the inexperienced T. E. Lawrence, in a burst of pure racism, describes the Arabic peoples as, “A little people, a silly people, greedy barbarous, and cruel.” It’s a description that might perfectly define Sen. Joe Manchin, and the person making that charge is … Sen. Joe Manchin.
On Tuesday, Politico described the lengths to which Manchin has gone to legislate around his family coal business—a business that sells what is literally the worst kind of coal, both environmentally and practically, and has managed to hang on despite a tumbling market. A sooty miracle.
But that’s not the astounding thing about Manchin. Neither is how he drove away from refusing to extend child credit payments in his Maserati, or how he scornfully waved off environmental concerns from the aft deck of his yacht. What’s most frustrating about Manchin, what’s so utterly baffling, is how much he seems to hate Joe Manchin. How much he seems to want “little” and “silly” to be his epitaph. Because faced with an unprecedented opportunity to generate a lasting legacy, Manchin instead chose—nothing.
Drive almost any distance at all in West Virginia, and your trip will involve going along some part of the Robert C. Byrd Appalachian Highway System. Cross the state line between Huntington, West Virginia, and Chesapeake, Ohio, and you’ll do so on the Robert C. Byrd Bridge. Cruise the streets of any larger town in the state, and it won’t be long before you come across a Byrd Drive, or Byrd Street, or Byrd Avenue, or Byrd Boulevard.
Depending on where you live in the state, you could easily attend Robert C. Byrd Elementary or Robert C. Byrd High School on your way to studying at the Robert C. Byrd Center for Legislative Studies, or Robert C. Byrd Center for Pharmacy Education, or Robert C. Byrd National Aerospace Education Center. You might work at one of the half dozen Robert C. Byrd Manufacturing Technology Centers, or the Robert C. Byrd Cancer Research Laboratory, or any of the 34 other centers, clinics, and facilities named for Robert C. Byrd.
If someone tells you to go to the Robert C. Byrd Federal Courthouse, you’ll have to ask, “Which one?”
There are no fewer than nine medical facilities named for Erma Ora Byrd, the senator’s wife.
To say the real life Sen. Robert C. Byrd was a mixed bag is putting it mildly. This is, after all, not just a guy who once joined the KKK, but a guy who organized a Klan chapter and used it to launch his political career. Though Byrd later said he had apologized a thousand times, fought against the Klan, and claimed to know how wrong his actions were, he still participated in a filibuster of the Civil Rights Act and was offering up racist statements right into the 2000s—by which time he was fighting against LGBTQ rights. On the other hand, Byrd was involved in almost an infinite number of important bills that expanded social programs and was involved in a number of admirable actions across more than 18,000 votes—not least of all his failed attempt to lead a filibuster against George W. Bush’s war on Iraq,
But the one thing that was consistent across Byrd’s 56-year career in the Senate was that he constantly, constantly, constantly sought to bring something home for the people of his state. The price for Byrd’s support could always be found somewhere in more promises of infrastructure, more funding for education, or in a guarantee of good jobs by siting some part of a federal agency in his state. Byrd built a legacy that is still roaring along a decade after his death, one that makes him a towering figure in his state and enshrines him as someone whose accomplishments, even if deeply tarnished, won’t be forgotten.
The length of Byrd’s career means that it’s unlikely anyone would ever be in a similar position to do so much for their state—unless, say, that person was the pivotal vote on a bill that’s desperately needed to save his party and the nation at a time of general crisis. Such a theoretical senator might expect to wrest some absolutely enormous concessions from their fellow legislators with which they could carve a blazing legacy at a stroke. Move the FBI headquarters to Charleston? Why not. Turn the struggling Grant Town power plant near Morgantown, West Virginia, into the National Experimental Coal Facility and prop it up with billions in support for every fluid bed combustion/onsite liquification/solid sequestration/underground storage dream ever dreamed so that’s the last coal plant running long after the others are gone? That’s practically a given.
Instead, real life Manchin seems to have decided that the most important thing to him is to be the man who stopped anything from happening. Congratulations, Morgantown, he’s the guy who stopped you from having a new research center. Tip your hat, Charleston, to the man who made sure you won’t get that new headquarters. Raise them up across the state for all the hospitals, research centers, schools, highways, and parks that won’t be built thanks to Your Man in Washington.
Over all that, Manchin seems to prefer the attention he gets from being the guy at the center of the snarl. Which is a position that will evaporate, completely, the moment there is one more, or one less, Democratic senator. He’s the guy who throw it all away for the nation’s most publicized snit.
Manchin is carving out a legacy as lasting as yesterday’s weather forecast. It’s not that he’ll be a footnote in the history books—he won’t be worth a footnote. No one, ever, will get to study at the Joe Manchin Center for F#cking Up a Golden Opportunity. Though it would be perfectly fitting if they did.
Oh, yeah, and according to that Politico article, Manchin has made a lot of carve-outs in legislation to carefully protect his own cash flow from that filthy little coal salvage operation feeding the dirtiest coal in the nation to the plant he keeps propping up. Which is something you can expect to end the moment someone gets a chance to “reward” Manchin for his obstinance.
Those guys will probably pop a brew or two to Manchin when he’s gone. And laugh.
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