‘Joe,’ as in Manchin, not Biden
By Joan Vennochi, The Boston Globe
Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia has a repertoire of folksy stories about the hyper-partisan nature of Washington politics and how he has been fighting it. For example, after Harry Reid, the late Senate majority leader, once told him that Democrats would be taking a party-line vote, Manchin said he told Reid, “On my best day, I can’t sell that crap in West Virginia.”
Of course, the crowd gathered at Friday’s Politics and Eggs event, which was co-hosted by Saint Anselm College and the New England Council, was really there to hear Manchin address a more current question: Will he take his fight for political moderation into the 2024 election cycle by launching a third-party presidential bid, possibly through No Labels, a centrist group that has talked about sponsoring a “unity ticket”?
And to that, Manchin’s answer was a lot less direct. “Everyone says, ‘Are you running for this or running for that?’” he told the group. “I said, ‘no, I’m running the race to bring the country together.’” Later, when someone in the audience asked, “How would you feel if a bunch of Democrats in New Hampshire wrote in ‘Joe’”? As in Manchin, not Biden. He replied, “I cannot prevent whatever you want to do.”
On Sunday, Manchin, who is not seeking re-election to the Senate, stirred the pot of coy ambivalence a bit more. While he didn’t rule out a third-party bid, he told Margaret Brennan, host of CBS’s “Face the Nation,” “I’m not going to be a spoiler, never have been and never will be,” and repeated what he said in New Hampshire, that he would wait for Super Tuesday on March 5 to make a decision.
He also said, “I love my country too much to vote for Donald Trump.” That was a shift from the Politics and Eggs event on Friday, when he advised the audience to decide based on “the character of the candidate,” but declined to name his own choice. That omission “totally blows the rest of his message,” said Paul Brodeur, a Democrat who recently stepped down as mayor of Melrose and was part of a substantial Massachusetts contingent at the event.
In his New Hampshire remarks, Manchin described President Biden as “a good man, a very decent person,” who has been pushed “too far left.”
As if helping to make his point about political extremes, climate activists outside the New Hampshire Institute of Politics chanted, “No more coal, we’re out of time. Manchin, we can see your crime,” and held signs that said, “Manchin is killing us,” a reference to the senator’s stalwart support for fossil fuels. But the concept that Manchin is pushing, of a more bipartisan brand of politics in which compromise is not a dirty word, has its fans.
“I think Manchin is absolutely terrific,” said Bill Weld, the former Republican governor of Massachusetts, who in 2016 was the vice presidential nominee of the Libertarian Party, and in 2020, ran a short, long-shot campaign against Trump as a Republican and ultimately endorsed Biden. So, should Manchin run? “Absolutely,” said Weld. Wouldn’t that hurt Biden? “I don’t think No Labels would field a presidential candidate unless there looked like there was a path to victory,” Weld replied. “They’re not going to do it for the purpose of sinking Joe Biden’s ship.”
“The message is spot-on – it’s okay to disagree without being disagreeable, let’s bring the country back to the middle in terms of solving problems,” said Steven Baddour, a former Massachusetts state senator who served as a Democrat, and now works with Weld at ML Strategies, a political consulting and lobbying group. “Whether he runs or not, the idea of him championing this cause and getting out and having these conversations with average and normal Americans is a good thing.”
Does it hurt Biden? Not yet, said Baddour.
Being labeled a potential spoiler goes with the territory of third-party candidacies. There’s no history of winning, just of losing while siphoning votes away from the Republican or Democratic nominee. “Third party guys have an impact. Sometimes it’s an impact we like,” said veteran Democratic political consultant Michael Goldman. “Bill Clinton wouldn’t be president without Ross Perot.” On the other hand, Goldman believes that George W. Bush wouldn’t have won the 2000 election if Ralph Nader hadn’t taken votes away from Al Gore in Florida.
The real bottom-line question out of Manchin’s Granite State foray: Will there ever be enough political middle ground in America to support a winning presidential bid from a third-party candidate?
“I think we’re so polarized, left, right, there’s very little in the middle,” Jim Brett, the president and CEO of the New England Council told me. “It sounds good, but I question it myself – is there a middle?” Meanwhile, when it comes to waiting for Super Tuesday to make a decision about getting in, “That’s crazy,” Brett said.
Crazy like a fox? No, just crazy like a foxy politician who understands the attention he can get as long as he toys with the idea of a third-party presidential campaign.