Updated at 2:05 p.m.
Sen. Joe Manchin’s may think running for re-election as a Democrat while remaining uncommitted to President Obama will buy him cover with … somebody. But it’s not with Republicans.
“What a difference one Democratic Senator’s upcoming re-election and three years of failed economic policies by the Democrats makes,” emails Brian Walsh, communications director for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, in a statement. “But no amount of election-year rhetoric from Senator Manchin will cause voters in West Virginia to forget that three years ago he unabashedly supported President Obama, while predicting great things for West Virginia under his Administration. Instead of trying to put distance between he and the President, Senator Manchin should be more focused on a simple, three word message to his constituents - ‘I am sorry.’”
Attached to Walsh’s email are exactly one dozen statements from then-Gov. Joe Manchin waxing enthusiastically about candidate Obama in 2008. In other words, any voters who might be moved by Manchin’s sudden skittishness will quickly be reminded that Manchin’s skepticism is something new. And because it’s new, his constituents, and members of the media, will ask him to explain: What changed? And the awkward, unvirtuous cycle will churn along.
This isn’t some rookie error. Manchin has been a politician for three decades, and has served in the Senate now for well over a year. And yet his tenure has been marked by what seem like reactionary, rather than strategic, attempts to distance himself from his party.
Yes, as a Democratic senator from a conservative state, he has to walk a political tightrope — for instance, he won Robert Byrd’s old seat in coal-rich West Virginia promising to take a rifle to Democrats’ cap and trade proposal to regulate carbon emissions. But unlike other, similarly constrained members who walk that rope like nimble acrobats, Manchin has tripped, stumbled and nearly fallen repeatedly.
In December 2010 — after Democrats got walloped in the midterms, and amid a historically productive lame duck session — the Senate held key votes on two polarizing bills: The DREAM Act and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell repeal. Presented with the danger of staking out positions on those issues, Manchin opted to attend a family Christmas party instead. Manchin publicly apologized for the blunder, but not before Republicans and the press dealt him a beating.
So eager was Manchin to distance himself from his party that in 2011 and 2012, he repeatedly voted against different versions of the payroll tax cut extension — an initiative that enjoyed enormous public support, and ultimately passed on an overwhelmingly bipartisan basis.
Manchin, like other conservative Democrats and nearly all Republicans, voted to raise the debt limit, then turned around and voted for symbolic resolutions of “disapproval” when the administration announced that its borrowing authority needed to be extended.
That’s not to say he always cuts against his party. Manchin voted against the GOP’s effort to repeal Obama’s health care law, and has supported Obama’s jobs bill, and pieces thereof, to help his party build the case that Republican filibusters have thwarted popular economic growth initiatives.
String it all together, though, and Manchin’s flailing efforts to ensure his own job security have only drawn more attention to the fact that his job is in real danger.
Late update: Manchin provided TPM with the following statement, explaining his ambivalence between Obama and Romney.
I strongly believe that every American should always be rooting for our President to do well, no matter which political party that he or she might belong to. With that being said, many West Virginians believe the last three and a half years haven’t been good for us, but we’re hopeful that they can get better. I have some real differences with both Governor Romney and the President, as I have said many times. I think there are many West Virginians like me who have deep concerns about Governor Romney understanding the challenges ordinary people face. And there are many West Virginians who believe that he’s out of touch, especially because of his plan to end Medicare as we know it and privatize Social Security.
With that being said, many West Virginians and I also have concerns about the Obama Administration when it comes to energy - coal in particular - and the need to get our financial house in order. Like all West Virginians, I will be watching very carefully as this race develops. Whoever is President, my first priority is the same - as always. I look for what’s best for West Virginia and the nation as a whole.
Brian Beutler is TPM's senior congressional reporter. Since 2009, he's led coverage of health care reform, Wall Street reform, taxes, the GOP budget, the government shutdown fight, and the debt limit fight. He can be reached at email@example.com.