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Politics

Joe Manchin Was America’s De Facto Climate King

The senator from West Virginia is retiring. Who will we think about now?

Joe Manchin Was America’s De Facto Climate King
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

What can you say about Joe Manchin, perhaps the most important — and most complicated — American climate policy maker of the past decade?

Let’s start here: Soon, he won’t be a senator any more. On Thursday, Manchin announced that he will not pursue re-election in West Virginia in 2024.

“I’ve made one of the toughest decisions of my life and decided that I will not be running for re-election to the United States Senate,” he said in a video message. Instead, he said, he will be “traveling the country and speaking out to see if there is an interest in creating a movement to mobilize the middle and bring Americans together.”

We don’t have many details about what “mobilizing the middle” might look like; Manchin was recently said to be considering a third-party presidential run. If he did make a go for the White House, that would seemingly have disastrous consequences for Joe Biden’s re-election effort — and, in all likelihood, for climate action generally — because it could probably hand the 2024 race to Donald Trump.

But pending that possibility, Manchin’s decision immediately reframes several aspects of next year’s elections.

It means, first, that West Virginia Governor and serial coal-mine-safety violator Jim Justice will likely win Manchin’s seat, marking the end of a tectonic political realignment that saw the state go from solidly Democratic to solidly Republican.

Without West Virginia, Democrats’ path to a Senate majority now looks more like a tightrope: It requires Democrats to hold difficult seats in Ohio, Montana, Pennsylvania, and Arizona. Then the party needs to win in one additional state. But the pickings are slim. Are Texas or Florida really going to elect a Democrat to the Senate? Is Mississippi, Missouri, or Nebraska?

Manchin’s decision will, in other words, have big implications for what Democrats can and cannot do in government. Without a working Senate majority, Democrats will struggle to pass laws or appoint justices to the Supreme Court even if they control the House of Representatives and the White House.

But, of course, Manchin’s decision is even more profound because who he is — his anxieties, whims, and cognitive biases — has long had an outsized influence on legislation. Setting aside presidents and a few jurists, there may not be a recent Democratic policymaker whose personal views more closely shaped the law.

Manchin wielded power, above all, because he represented West Virginia, the most conservative state to send a Democrat to the Senate. That meant he was his caucus’s obvious marginal member and swing vote.

And you could tell. What other Democrat could get away with owning a coal plant while ostensibly overseeing the coal industry? (Manchin is the chairman of the Senate energy and natural resources committee.) What other Democrat could demand last-minute changes to an economic recovery package?

Manchin’s crowning legacy will be the Inflation Reduction Act, which is often described as “President Biden’s signature climate bill,” but which is smudged with Manchin’s fingerprints, too. As chairman of the Senate energy committee, Manchin had a good deal of de jure authority over the law; as the Senate’s swing vote, he had even more de facto power. The final bill text was hammered out in negotiations between Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s team — who were essentially negotiating on behalf of the rest of the caucus — and Manchin’s team.

You can see it in the law’s final policies.

Some of the Inflation Reduction Act’s most generous subsidies will go to the nascent clean hydrogen industry, which Manchin has long nurtured. If hydrogen becomes an anti-environmental boondoggle on par with ethanol, then Manchin will bear a good deal of the blame; if it decarbonizes the American industrial sector, he should get some credit.

Likewise, Manchin is why the bill’s tax credits for electric vehicles do not incentivize union membership.

He is behind the law’s peculiar rules about exactly which industries and organizations can claim their subsidies as direct cash payments. He also shaped the design of its carbon-capture tax credits.

If there is something distinctive in the IRA, the odds are good that Manchin either insisted on it, approved it, or didn’t notice it.

But Manchin drove other climate and energy policy too. He cowrote the bipartisan Energy Act of 2020 with Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. That law focused the federal government’s industrial policy on carbon management, clean hydrogen, and critical minerals — some of the same topics that would dominate the IRA. It also expanded the powers of the Loan Programs Office, the Department of Energy’s in-house bank.

He criticized the Environmental Protection Agency and sometimes voted to overturn its rules. He consistently opposed carbon taxes or pricing carbon in any way, all but ensuring the idea’s political death in the short-term. Even his Senate career more or less began with him taking aim — literally — at Obama’s climate bill. During his first race for Senate in 2010, Manchin ran a TV ad in which he shot a rifle at a stack of papers labeled “cap and trade bill” and promised to take on then-President Barack Obama’s proposal.

In short, if you thought about climate policy over the past decade, you wound up thinking quite a lot about the likes, dislikes, and peculiarities of Joe Manchin. What he might support or oppose mapped the frontier of political possibility in the United States. He was, in short, potentially the most influential force in shaping American climate policy during the 2010s. (Only Mary Nichols, who has been California’s chief air-pollution regulator since 2007, might match his importance.)

My first thought is that Manchin may soon join that list of capricious ex-senators — Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson come to mind — whose names, once synonymous with power itself, become the answer to bad trivia questions. But I have been thinking about Joe Manchin, 76, for a long time, and I expect to find it a hard habit to break. He is an ambitious, eccentric, and preternaturally lucky man. I suspect his next few decisions will prove even more important than those that have come before.

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Robinson Meyer profile image

Robinson Meyer

Robinson is the founding executive editor of Heatmap. He was previously a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he covered climate change, energy, and technology.

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