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To understand Joe Manchin III is to know that if he could have his way, he never would have left the West Virginia governor’s mansion.
The Mountain State Democrat is almost compulsive in his desire to inject himself into the middle of fights that leadership often would prefer he sat out — with one Senate Democratic aide referring to him as a perpetual “bull in the china shop.” Manchin says it’s because of his inclination to fix problems and make Washington work, but it also seems the former governor is trying to fill the void left by no longer being an executive, which he still feels like a phantom limb.
“[You] can’t make me miss [being a governor] any more. You can’t ever be any more missing of something than I am,” Manchin said in an interview with Roll Call before a Tuesday night meeting with the newly formed Senate governors caucus.
Manchin walked away from the governorship with two years left in his term after the death of Sen. Robert C. Byrd in 2010 and, even while campaigning, seriously discussed dropping out. He said he “always had [a] reservation” about running for Senate.
“I should have done it,” Manchin said about finishing his term as governor. “Looking back on it, when I look at it, I left the best job in the world voluntarily two years early, and I want to kick myself ever since I’ve done that.”
But two senatorial elections and three years later, Manchin is firmly situated in the hyperpartisan, broken Washington he decries so often, and on issue after issue he has found his way to the center of debate, even if it’s sometimes at the political peril of his Democratic colleagues.
On gun control, student loans, a toxic chemical bill, Syria and delaying the individual mandate, Manchin has sought out Republican partners — and has often been sought out by them — to pave a middle road. Of those specific efforts, only his work on student loans has facilitated an actual law. But his political instincts have been sharp, especially when he moved to focus the gun debate on background checks, even though the effort ultimately failed to pass the Senate and he had to face blowback at home.
Manchin’s freelancing has created varying degrees of headaches for Democratic leaders and the White House, although he often provides Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., with the needed procedural votes when it counts — including sticking with him during the government shutdown fight.