The size of the tent doesn’t matter

FiveThirtyEight’s Harry Enten wrote a piece yesterday on Joe “I Vote With Donald Trump Two-Thirds Of The Time” Manchin (D?-WV) and his value, much evidence to the contrary, to the Democratic Party:

So I can see why progressives would be peeved with Manchin. But it’s sort of silly to compare Manchin to the median Democrat. He represents West Virginia! FiveThirtyEight’s “Trump Score,” which ignores party and instead compares how often members vote with Trump to how often we would expect them to based on Trump’s share of the vote in their state, shows Manchin as one of the Democrats’ most valuable members. Manchin votes for the Trump position occasionally, but he does so about 33 percentage points less than senators from similarly red states.

In other words, Manchin’s real worth to Democrats is that he’s a Democrat, because a Republican from West Virginia would probably vote GOP far more often. In fact, West Virginia’s other senator, Capito, has voted with Trump 100 percent of the time.

The use of the word “occasionally” to describe something Manchin does 67 percent of the time is…interesting phrasing, but I’m not here to argue about vocabulary. The big problem with this analysis is that it compares Manchin to Republican senators, who you would obviously expect to vote Trump’s way almost all the time. But Enten has adjusted for that, a bit:

Is Manchin going overboard in breaking with the Democratic Party, even when accounting for his conservative constituents? As I said, the Trump Score doesn’t factor in political party, so to determine how frequently a Democrat from West Virginia “should” vote with his party, we can build a simple model examining each Democratic senator’s voting record in each Congress from the 111th through the first half of the 114th (2015) compared to the results in the previous two presidential elections.7 And a generic Democrat from West Virginia would be expected to vote with his or her party about 73 percent of the time during this Congress. That’s actually slightly less than the 77 percent of the time Manchin has voted with the Democratic Party in the average Congress. These numbers suggest that even if liberal activists were able to dethrone Manchin, it’s far from a guarantee that the replacement Democrat would vote with the Democratic Party any more often than Manchin does.

I’m not even here to argue with Enten’s conclusion, which is that Democrats probably shouldn’t primary Manchin because the only kind of Democrat who can win in West Virginia is one basically indistinguishable from Manchin on policy, and that hypothetical Democrat would obviously lack Manchin’s incumbency and name-recognition advantages. We could argue about the merits of simply primarying Manchin, who would almost certainly defeat a challenger from the left, and how much that could actually hurt him in a general election (who knows, the chance to spend a few months punching hard left could actually help Manchin in a state like West Virginia), but that’s not really my point either.

My argument is instead with the Democratic Party and liberals who see Joe Manchin as some kind of precious victory for the center-left in a deeply right-wing state, when in fact he represents failure. It’s not a victory for the Democratic Party when it manages to elect a facsimile of a Republican to the US Senate, it’s an acknowledgement that you’ve failed to counter the other party’s message. It’s a symptom of a party that’s gotten comfortable talking to itself while it loses state houses and governorships by the bushel, while it watches as the Republicans win nearly every lever of political power in this country, with the occasional conservative Democratic victory being hailed as a sign that everything is fine, the Democratic system works.

I agree that Joe Manchin shouldn’t be primaried. At the very least, if Democrats do somehow regain the Senate in 2018 he can (probably) be relied upon to uphold that majority and thereby allow a Democratic majority to control the Senate agenda. But it would be wonderful for the Democratic Party if, institutionally, it stopped treating Joe Manchin as a star and starting asking why he’s the best the Democrats can do in West Virginia. Because that’s the failure. Rectifying it is going to take a lot of time and a shitload of effort, but at the end hopefully you’ll have rebuilt a functional left-liberal politics in states like West Virginia and you’ll be able to treat the Joe Manchins of the world not as though they were a precious, vanishing resource, but as what they really are: right-wing conservatives. Joe Manchin and Democrats like him represent what should be the mainstream right-wing in a functional democracy. That they’re the center-left in America is a sign of how deeply fucked up our politics have gotten, and we should be trying to fix that instead of cheering on Manchin’s success.

As to Enten’s question, how big a tent the Democratic Party wants to have, maybe the better question should be whether or not the Democratic Party is ever going to define what it means to be a Democrat. Right now the answer is either “put a ‘D’ after your name and (occasionally) criticize the Republicans,” or, at best, “check out our platform on The Website,” and neither of those is sufficient. You can have as big a tent as you want, but if nobody’s in it then what’s the point? And in case you haven’t noticed, there aren’t too many people inside the Democratic tent at the moment.

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