When Lyndon B. Johnson took over leadership of the Senate Democratic caucus in the early 1950s, anybody who suggested that he would one day become the most consequential elected champion of civil rights in nearly 100 years would have been laughed out of the smoke-filled room.
Yet just a few years later, the protégé of the arch-segregationist and white supremacist Sen. Richard Russell had broken with his mentor and muscled through the 1957 Civil Rights Act, followed later, as president, by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act, and the Fair Housing Act. None of that meant Johnson stopped being racist; rather, he saw where the future was heading.
Johnson correctly recognized that segregationist politics had taken him as far as they could, and in order to rise to become a national figure, he needed to flip and become an ally of the civil rights movement. Johnson’s genius lay in his ability to see changing political landscapes and the potential for new coalitions embedded within them — and to shape himself to be the one at the center of that new coalition.
Johnson could easily have clung to segregationist politics and continued winning (and stealing) elections the rest of his life as a steadfast champion of the New Deal. Sen. Joe Manchin’s capacity to continue winning elections as a centrist, pro-business Democrat in West Virginia is less assured, but Manchin appears to believe that he can continue to hold on by making the defense of the coal industry — a business in which he is not just a referee but also a player — central to his politics. In objecting to the Build Back Better Act, Manchin argued that its investments in clean energy were pushing the economy too quickly away from fossil fuels, and he has objected to multiple specific provisions that he believes are unfair to coal.
Ironically, a path remarkably similar to the one that opened up for Johnson is now laid out before Manchin, but Manchin’s narrow view of himself and his potential means that he’s unlikely to see it. The imaginary ceiling he sees just above his head is unusual for a senator — a creature that, as the adage goes, wakes up and sees a president in the mirror — and for a man who incessantly pines for the glory days of his governorship, when he had genuine executive authority, the thing he tells colleagues he misses the most. Yet he doesn’t miss it enough to see his path toward gaining it at the national level.
If Manchin had more political imagination and more confidence behind his own ambition, he might see that breaking with coal and austerity is his only path out of his own political death spiral — and could even position him for the presidency.
LBJ and Manchin came up under similar circumstances, both the sons of small-time rural politicians. Johnson’s father, who served in the statehouse in Austin, Texas, went bust twice in the cotton business, with Johnson driven to redeem the family name. Manchin’s grandfather and father were both mayors of Farmington, West Virginia, the former a grocer and the latter the owner of a carpet store. His uncle A. James Manchin also got into politics but resigned in disgrace from the position of state treasurer. It didn’t dampen the hope of Manchin’s father to build a political dynasty modeled after the Kennedy family. The connection was personal: The Manchins served as West Virginia “sherpas” for President John F. Kennedy’s 1960 primary victory there.
Manchin is a completely different senator from Johnson, even if their backgrounds and politics betray similarities. Johnson peered at the Senate, divined its nature, and bent it to his will by building momentary political coalitions others hadn’t seen. He was also operating in a more fluid Senate, in the middle of a political realignment that produced the ossified chamber Manchin entered in 2010. Manchin peered at the Senate, saw a chamber divided by party, and went to work using his personal amiability to overcome the structural obstacles to his cherished bipartisanship. While Manchin fought the partisan realignment and flailed helplessly, Johnson leaned into it and rode it to national power. Manchin’s approach to the Senate — use the filibuster to try to reverse time and bring back the allegedly halcyon days of the old upper chamber — is much closer to Russell’s than to Johnson’s.
But if Manchin was interested, the Democratic presidential bench is as light as it’s been in generations. The vice president is the subject of endless speculation about the nature and cause of her collapse, and whether the president will run for reelection is a wide open question (he claims that he will). In a world where Manchin decided to swing to the coal miners union, which is pleading with him to reconsider his opposition to Build Back Better, instead of siding with the coal mine owners, new possibilities immediately open for him.
Democratic primary voters and the media organs through which their news is filtered have become increasingly pragmatic in their thinking when it comes to the nomination process. While Republican voters are willing to take a flyer on a wild card like Barry Goldwater or Donald Trump, Democratic voters try to pick a winner. Both Black voters and white suburban voters base their own decision-making on their hapless efforts to divine which Democratic candidate will be most appealing — or least unappealing — to those inscrutable white working-class voters who drive election coverage. That Democratic primary voters are not terribly good at answering that question — they nominated John Kerry because they thought nobody could besmirch the patriotic credentials of a war hero — hasn’t diminished their willingness to try.
In a world where Manchin saved the Biden presidency and enacted a sweeping Build Back Better Act, and followed it up by carving a filibuster exception for voting rights, he would immediately surge to the top of the presidential pack, applauded by everyone from the Rev. William Barber II to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to the Sunrise Movement to the United Mine Workers. For primary voters wondering what kind of candidate might appeal to voters in the hinterlands, there’s no more hinterland candidate than a senator from West Virginia. And once a candidate claims a nomination in our polarized era, they’re virtually guaranteed a close election.
There would of course be those crying foul, warning that Manchin can’t be trusted and is only cynically pivoting toward his new politics — I would be loudly among them — just as there were such liberal doubters of Johnson’s claims of conversion, which came along with his insistence on continuing to drop the N-word in conversation. But in the end, it doesn’t matter for the Civil Rights Act whether the signature on it was written with love or with cynical political ambition and a dose of racism in mind. Nor does it matter to carbon emissions whether they are reduced with warm feelings or in the pursuit of cold ambition.
That the comparison you’ve just read is absurd to contemplate, however, may itself be the most revealing evidence of the bankruptcy of Manchin’s political imagination. Even President Joe Biden, who spent his career as the definition of a defensive, incrementalist moderate, has recognized the moment’s possibility. But he can’t get there without Manchin, and Manchin, lost in an abandoned mine shaft, can’t see his way there.