When he jumped into the contentious debate over the nation’s gun laws, Sen. Joe Manchin learned quickly that he’d committed a crime in politically toxic Washington.
“The environment in Washington is guilt by conversation,” said Manchin, the Democratic junior senator from West Virginia.
A lifelong National Rifle Association member with an “A” legislative grade from the group, Manchin underscored his credentials as an against-the-grain Democrat when he shot a mock Obama-era cap-and-trade environmental bill with a rifle in a famous 2010 campaign ad.
But after the school shooting last December in Newtown, Conn., Manchin went on TV to say that it’s time for all sides to “to sit down and move this dialogue to a sensible, reasonable approach” on guns.
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Since then, the 65-year-old former governor has been at the center of the debate, trying to balance achieving a gun proposal that keeps firearms out of the hands of dangerous people with satisfying gun-rights advocates, some of whom accuse him of being in cahoots with President Barack Obama in trying to take away their guns and obliterate their Second Amendment right to bear arms.
If the most dangerous place in politics these days is the center, it’s a familiar dance for a lawmaker whose independence at times confounds Democrats and Republicans alike. As the most conservative Democrat in the Senate, according to a National Journal analysis of votes in the 112th Congress, Manchin has shown no problems in going against his party.
He didn’t endorse Obama’s re-election bid last year, citing disappointment in the administration’s handling of fiscal matters and a so-called war on coal waged by the Environmental Protection Agency.
He also incurred the wrath of Republican military hawks such as Sen. John McCain of Arizona for urging Obama to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan swiftly in 2011. McCain suggested on the Senate floor that Manchin was “at least uninformed about history and strategy and challenges” faced in combating Islamic extremism.
“I got McCain-ized,” Manchin said in an interview, with a slight smile.
“The fact that Joe Manchin is from West Virginia and willing to step out and engage on the gun debate is just more evidence that he is independent and goes his own way,” said Mark McKinnon, a former George W. Bush presidential campaign adviser and a co-founder of No Labels, a bipartisan problem-solving group that tapped Manchin and Republican former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman to help lead it.
“Joe Manchin has made a big impression as a freshman and is quickly emerging as a force in the Senate and on the national stage.”
Manchin and Sens. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and Mark Kirk, R-Ill., have been quietly working on a gun proposal that centers on criminal and mental health background checks. There was optimism last week that a deal on a proposal was imminent. However, the four senators appear stuck over questions about how background check records would be maintained for private gun sales.
While McKinnon and others praise Manchin’s role in the debate, some gun-rights advocates say the senator’s involvement is hardly a profile in political courage.
“We think he’s a coward,” said Michael Hammond, a legal adviser for the Gun Owners of America, a group that awarded Manchin a “D” on firearms issues. “If he had a problem with the Second Amendment and getting people’s approval for buying guns, we wish he would have done it before the Nov. 6 election. He’s been elected to a six-year term now, he can do whatever he wants and the people of West Virginia can’t do anything about it.”
Though Manchin was a popular governor who easily vanquished his Republican challenger in 2010 and 2012 to retain the Senate seat held by the late Robert Byrd, some political analysts think that the gun issue could haunt him.
West Virginia is a traditionally Democratic state that’s become increasingly conservative. Democratic presidential contenders haven’t captured the state since Bill Clinton defeated Bob Dole there in 1996.
“It’s a balancing act for Manchin because West Virginia is a gun state, a hunting state,” said Rex Repass, the director of the West Virginia Poll. “He has his constituents and the national Democratic Party. West Virginia is at odds with the national Democratic Party on gun control. That’s the difficulty for him.”
The National Association for Gun Rights recently launched a petition drive accusing Manchin of being a Washington “gun-grabber,” and it released a television ad that shows his visage morphing into Obama’s.
Manchin responded with a video message on his YouTube account last week calling the gun group’s charges against him a “bunch of crap.”
“I’ve not had any pushback, any pushback, when people know that the only thing that I’m working on is should a criminal background check be made at the time of purchase, should a mental background check be made at the time of purchase," he said.
Attempts by Manchin foes to link him to Obama aren’t new. Republican John Raese, who lost to Manchin in 2010 and 2012, argued that Manchin would be another “rubber stamp” Democratic vote for the president in the Senate. But he’s proved to be anything but.
Manchin offered a lukewarm response Monday to Obama’s nomination of Gina McCarthy, who’s now the EPA’s assistant administrator in charge of air and radiation, to head the agency. She helped implement some of the administration’s climate change-related policies, including the decision to close some power plants.
“I have some very good and very honest straightforward questions” of McCarthy,” Manchin said. “ . . . Right now I would be a little skeptical and concerned. But I think it would be wrong to prejudge her.”