Conservative hard-liners should learn something from the leftist Democrats’ spectacular failure in their attempt to browbeat center-leaning Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia into submission. Conservatives should not treat Republicans’ own centrists the same way.
For months, Manchin was transparent about what he could and couldn’t swallow with regard to President Joe Biden’s massive Build Back Better spending bill, and for months, polls showed that Manchin’s West Virginia constituents overwhelmingly opposed the bill crafted by Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Yet rather than use diplomatic public statements to try to entice Manchin as close to their position as possible, leading Democrats repeatedly castigated him in highly insulting terms (which they repeated with even more fury after he finally said “no”).
According to the Hill columnist Steve Clemons, who has good inside sourcing on both Biden and Manchin, what finally spurred Manchin to move from “still negotiating” to a firm “no” on BBB was “White House incivility” combined with the even fiercer treatment of Manchin and his family by Biden’s “progressive” allies. At some point, incivility and downright abuse will drive anyone away.
There’s a lesson here for uncompromising conservatives. The lesson, which alas they never seem to learn, is that sometimes, it makes sense to cut some slack to officeholders who don’t toe the party line. Some Republicans who vote more centrist than conservative do so for good reason.
Of course, some politicians are weak, bending on principle every which way, with fingers in the wind. Fie on them. Some, though, have legitimately more centrist viewpoints, cogently and comprehensively developed, and are therefore acting on principle every bit as much as the ideologues who attack them. Also, of course, members of Congress aren’t entirely free agents but are expected to represent the viewpoints of their constituents to whatever extent those viewpoints do not violate the members’ consciences.
Sometimes, it might make sense for conservative hard-liners to criticize a representative from a strongly conservative district who seems to be wavering in order to curry elite favor. On the other hand, a genuinely center-right member representing a closely contested district, or a district that otherwise leans left, may have good reason to look for compromise. An offer of honey might be far more effective with such officials than the threat of hemlock.
Yet far too often, conservative ideologues know only how to bash and trash their erstwhile allies. For example, it matters not how often the marvelous, moderate Susan Collins of Maine, a state that hasn’t been won by a Republican presidential candidate since 1988, holds firm for Republicans on party-line votes: If she strays just once, the right-wing jackals bay for her blood.
The late Sen. James Jeffords was one of the most liberal Republicans imaginable, but in representing liberal Vermont, he was probably the absolute best conservatives could hope for, and he stuck with Republicans on plenty of votes. Conservatives, though, almost never thanked him, but mostly berated him. In 2001, he switched and began caucusing with Democrats, costing Republicans their Senate majority. Clearly, the GOP would have been better with the majority than without — and it certainly was better off with Jeffords in the fold than with his replacement when he eventually retired, the socialist Bernie Sanders.
None of this is to suggest to Republicans that the centrist tail should wag the conservative dog. It is, though, to say that sometimes, it’s better to leave a little leeway than to tell a centrist to hit the highway. If the centrist actually does hit the highway, the ones left stranded are likely to be the hard-liners themselves.