• Daniel Ethan Finneran

Joe Manchin's New Importance

January 2021

Senators, being less numerous than their counterparts in the House of Representatives—a group with whom they’ll not hesitate to deign to converse, but over whom, knowingly, they’ll always enjoy the greater esteem—are more important when taken as individuals. This disproportionality, this gap between their larger power when viewed against their smaller number, is not a mistake: viewed as the aristocratic element of our mixed polity, our beautiful, enviable arrangement through which the vibrant colors of monarchy (in the Executive Branch) and democracy (in that of the Legislative) join harmoniously to streak, greater virtue was expected of fewer men. By nature, an aristocracy selects for those who are best, and the best, perforce, are few.

Originally indirectly elected by a state’s population, a mass of diverse characters from whom, perhaps for lack of confidence in their learning or faith in their wit, the immediate ability to choose a Congressman for placement in the country’s upper house was withheld, senators should be, at least so far as the Constitution is concerned, less accountable to the people.

They should worry less about those by whom—at least so far as things now stand—they’re elevated to so lofty a place. Each state, irrespective of the size of its population, the girth of its boundaries, or the value of its wealth, sends to the Federal City two people. The wisdom of an Amendment (the Seventeenth) to reduce the distance between our suffrage and choice of these two people is not one upon which I’ll here opine. That, I concede, is the sort of topic with which subtle lawyers can grapple, and weary scholars pass their time.

It’s impossible, however, for a senator truly to reflect the multitudinous desires, and the endless whims, of the people upon whom his electoral success is dependent. If that be impossible, and all agree that it is, it’s utterly unthinkable that, if not one, two senators could achieve so formidable a task. That’s the job, whether it be acknowledged or not, of the lower chamber, the House of Representatives, from which such solicitous and minute attention might be demanded and received. It’s their explicit role, given their larger numbers and humbler genius, to be more responsive to the people to whom they’re more closely bound. The senator, with his gravitas and immeasurable wisdom, is allowed, neigh, expected to be somewhat aloof.

In this way, we’ve retained the less representative aspect of the Senate, the higher body rather distant from us, to which we look up in our ceaseless quest for guidance in the absence of God. Laden with the august memories of Athens and Rome, around whose ancient forums, their hoary progenitors once strode, the hundred people by which our Senate is composed enjoy the rare privilege of affixing before their names, Senator, as if it were the honorific of a virtuous saint or some other revered celestial thing. What else, these men and women, quite intermediate between mortal and deity, are less encumbered by the shouts of the rabble among whom we, members of a less-elevated species, busy ourselves and pass our days.

It’s clear, then, that each individual senator possesses extraordinary clout, a large potency of which we hope, should he truly be deserving of the epithet, best, he’ll make reliably judicious, temperate, and noble use. It’s rare, though, to see before us one particular senator—in this case, Joe Manchin of West Virginia—emerge as the person among one hundred upon whom so much of our future hinges. It’s unusual to witness just one man become the repository of an entire nation’s hope, the vessel of our collective progress or deceleration, into whom an astonishingly large amount of influence has, as of yesterday, torrentially funneled.

With the unexpected results of the “run-off” senate election to which the state of Georgia was host, a contest upon which the incumbent president unwisely pressed his burdensome weight, the Senate is now perfectly split: fifty seats belong to the Republicans, and fifty to the Democrats. The possibility of stagnation and gridlock in so rare a case, where we see the two parties equally endorsed by a country riven with strife, was considered and, through their prescience, obviated by our Founding Fathers. With the abstract brilliance of philosophers, and the minute subtlety of watchmakers, they implanted into our Constitution a mechanism by which, despite the friction, our governmental gears might continue to turn.

In the case of a “fifty-fifty” split on any issue on which the Senate might be torn, the Vice President would insert herself (or himself, as is the case) into the body as its arbitrator of last resort. She shall then exchange her Executive influence for a larger, grander Legislative power and become, in the words of that divine document, “President of the Senate”. As such, she “shall have no vote, unless they be equally divided”, and incapable of coming, on their own initiative, to an agreeable conclusion. Precisely this kind of division is to be expected in the years ahead, given the tension of the political moment in which we now live, and heights to which, over the course of the next few years, it’s very likely to soar.

It’s in this scenario that a single man like Joe Manchin, a Democrat incongruously representing a deeply-red state, is lifted to a place of prominence to which he might’ve aspired, but never anticipated. The new power with which he’s been freshly endued or, better yet, by which he’ll be incessantly encumbered, can’t be understated.

The Democrat side of the Senate (of which, at least nominally, he remains a loyal member) buoyed by what it perceives to be its unequivocal electoral mandate, will attempt to enact some of its more startling promises: ending the filibuster, by which the minority party’s leverage is preserved; introducing new seats to the Supreme Court, by which its current conservative majority will be, with all promptitude, diluted; establishing unprecedented leniency in our immigration law, of which uncountable numbers in swelling caravans will take eager advantage; and formalizing as proper states Puerto Rico and Washington D.C., cherished parts of our country from which, when seeking office, only Democrats ever seem to emerge.

It can achieve these aims only with a “fifty-fifty” split, and the encouragement and intervention of an active Vice President, such as Kamala Harris, who’s not at all shy about exerting her will. She’ll be the ultimate linchpin by whom, if and when raised, every last one of these proposals will pass. She’ll stand astride two branches, second-in-line to an infirm Executive and first in power over Congress, acting, perhaps, as no Vice President ever will again.

Should Joe Manchin, an institutionalist at heart, and someone very little susceptible to Harris’ and his side’s progressive zeal, defect from his party’s “fifty” and stand a bulwark against the tide, all of the Vice President’s energy will be wasted in the West Wing. He needn’t, in so doing, disclose himself outright as a red-blooded Republican, a ghastly political label with which he’s often been draped, and beneath which, as though nettled by the itchiness of a too-tight Christmas sweater, he’s always uncomfortably squirmed. He need only resist the radicalism of which Harris is so vehement a supporter, and with which his own beloved party, so different today than it was in his youth, is now completely besotted.

In the small, but lofty chamber in which this country’s most distinguished legislators sit, from which so much collective wisdom flows and lambent eloquence streams, Manchin might be considered primus inter pares. He, at this point moving forward, is first among his aristocratic equals. His voice, from but one mouth out of a hundred, will be the one to which we all most attentively listen. His moderation, so frequently expressed in an effort to quiet his fellow West Virginians’ fears, will be the sole quality by which our own anxieties will be soothed, and our institutions preserved. I’m thankful that he is, so far as I can tell, not only a fearless thinker, but a virtuous actor, and a man unpliable to the whims of his Party, the energy of his Vice President, and the clamors of the mob.

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