Will Sen. Manchin’s Focus on Moderation Come at the Expense of His Catholic Principles?

Given the 50-50 split in the U.S. Senate, the centrist West Virginia Democrat will wield incredible influence — and likely face extraordinary pressure.

U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-WV, wears a protective mask as he departs the U.S. Capitol on September 21, 2020 in Washington, DC.
U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-WV, wears a protective mask as he departs the U.S. Capitol on September 21, 2020 in Washington, DC. (photo: Stefani Reynolds / Getty)

“Catholic” means universal. So perhaps it’s a product of his faith that Sen. Joe Manchin tries to be all things to all men, bridging the gap between two increasingly divided parties. 

The son of a dedicated Italian Catholic family long involved in West Virginia political life, the Democrat senator’s politics are something of a throwback, blending pro-labor economic policy with a mild dose of social conservatism. As a youth, Manchin met members of John F. Kennedy’s family when they came to his hometown of Farmington to campaign for Kennedy and pay their respects to the Manchin family. Kennedy inspired the young Manchin then, and a picture of the nation’s first Catholic president, as well as a quote — “Let us not seek the Republican answer or the Democratic answer, but the right answer” — hangs in his office today.

Manchin’s centrism and political pragmatism have allowed him to not only survive but thrive in a state that has swung hard from Democrat to Republican in recent decades. His political career spans nearly 40 years — including a term as West Virginia’s first Catholic governor in the 2000s and an odds-defying 2018 reelection to the U.S. Senate after Republican Donald Trump won the state by 40% two years earlier. As of this year, Manchin is the only Democrat holding statewide office in West Virginia. 

And now, with the U.S. Senate split 50-50 between the parties, Manchin’s middle-of-the-road ways have put him in position to exercise significant influence. With Democrats holding a mere Kamala Harris tiebreaker as their only advantage, any legislation they hope to pass will likely have to pass through Manchin, giving him a voice and a stature rarely held by a moderate in today’s climate of entrenched partisanship.

“When you see him on the Morning Joe show or you see him being interviewed, he’s kind of the belle of the ball right now,” said John Kilwein, a professor of political science at West Virginia University. “And I don’t think he minds it.”

Manchin has already gone on record saying he’ll oppose elements of the “crazy socialist agenda” being prioritized by his party’s progressive wing, including ending the filibuster, packing the Supreme Court, and defunding the police. A member of the bipartisan “Problem Solvers Caucus,” Manchin has long demonstrated a willingness to cross party lines when he believes a commonsense solution is attainable — or when the political pressure is high enough. 

With his reelection bid on the horizon, he supported most of President Trump’s cabinet appointments in 2017 and was the only Democrat to cast a favorable vote for Brett Kavanaugh during the Supreme Court justice’s volatile confirmation hearings in the summer of 2018. 

During his 15 years at the West Virginia Catholic Conference (WVCC), Jesuit Father Brian O’Donnell says he was impressed with Manchin’s “concern for those who are hurting,” adding that, as governor, he was “pretty darned effective” at helping people. Father O’Donnell also noted Manchin’s efforts to build bridges between opponents and described the senator as “authentically in the middle.”

“Joe Manchin really does try to find ways to get people to work together,” said Father O’Donnell, who stepped down as WVCC’s director earlier this year and now serves at a parish in Baltimore. “I was very impressed with him.”


Concerns About Compromise

Manchin’s bona fides as a commonsense problem solver and uniter are beyond question, and they’re needed today more than ever. But in his insistence on finding the middle ground, some worry that Manchin may be in danger of making moderation an end in its own right, liable to sacrifice what matters most: his principles, especially those regarding his commitment to the unborn and other controversial social issues. 

A self-described pro-lifer, Manchin often talks about how his Catholic faith informs him on the issue and tells the story of when his mother took in a pregnant teenager in need as a moment of great inspiration. In recent years, he has voted “Yea” for the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act and supported the Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act and drew the ire of some members of his party when he stood to applaud Trump’s condemnation of late-term abortion during the 2019 State of the Union address.

“Late-term abortions are just horrific,” Manchin is reported to have said regarding his decision to applaud Trump’s words. “Totally just wrong.”

But, if the scorecards of both pro-life and abortion-rights groups are any indication, Manchin has something of a mixed record on the issue. In particular, he has zigged and zagged when it has come to funding for the nation’s largest abortion provider, Planned Parenthood. 

Manchin voted against funding Planned Parenthood in 2015 when undercover videos showing one of the abortion provider’s employees discussing the sale of fetal remains surfaced. But for the most part, he has justified his votes in support of the abortion giant on the grounds that federal law prevents public funding from going directly toward abortion and that Planned Parenthood provides critical services other than abortion, such as mammograms and STD testing. The lone Planned Parenthood in West Virginia, for instance, doesn’t even provide abortions. 

Pro-life advocates generally criticize such logic, arguing that any support for Planned Parenthood is, in some way, facilitating the organization’s ability to perform abortions.

Manchin’s back-and-forth was captured visibly in 2017, when, in the span of a month, he was seen in separate photographs, one in which he was helping a supporter hold a sign that read, “We don’t need Planned Parenthood” and the other in which he was helping a supporter hold a sign stating, “I stand with Planned Parenthood.” The strange juxtaposition highlights the political calculus of a man whose electability depends on both appealing to West Virginian conservatives while also not alienating his Democratic base.

Manchin, whose office did not return comment before this piece was published, has also made other questionable moves on abortion, such as warning Trump to avoid picking a judicial nominee who would overturn Roe v. Wade in 2018. The same year, when West Virginians were considering a ballot measure that would add language to the state constitution effectively denying any right to or funding for abortion, Manchin declined to support the amendment on the grounds that it didn’t include exceptions for scenarios involving rape, incest or when the mother’s life was in danger. 

Pro-lifers pounced on the declaration as an indication of Manchin’s unreliability on abortion, though others, like Father O’Donnell, say it wasn’t a measure that Manchin had any direct control over anyway and was likely used by Republican lawmakers in an attempt to both drive up conservative turnout and create a wedge between Manchin and progressives. Kilwein, however, said it was an instance of “classic Joe Manchin.”

“I mean, he’s not a flamethrower. Even if Joe Manchin were the dictator of the world, I think there are certain circumstances where he would say [abortion] has to be available,” speculated the WVU political scientist.


Upcoming Battles

Now, with the post-2020 election landscape potentially offering opportunities for abortion-rights activists to strike down regulations and expand access, pro-life advocates are expressing mixed views on Manchin’s reliability on the issue. Of particular concern is the status of the Hyde Amendment — a longtime measure that prevents federal funding of elective abortions in Medicaid. On Dec. 30, Manchin told the National Review that repealing the Hyde Amendment would be “foolish.”

“As a lifelong Catholic, I have always been pro-life …” said Manchin. “If this legislation is brought before the Senate, I will vote against repealing the Hyde Amendment.” 

Some pro-life advocates like Kristen Day, executive director of Democrats for Life of America, are convinced by Manchin’s stance. Day recently told Catholic News Agency that Manchin “doesn’t give in to pressure,” adding that the pro-life community “needs to stand with him.” 

Others in the movement, like the Susan B. Anthony List’s Mallory Quigley, caution that Manchin “hasn’t always been consistent.” Several point out that many of Manchin’s pro-life votes as a senator have been largely inconsequential, supporting legislation that had no chance of passing, raising doubts that he could be a reliable deciding vote on a pro-life measure. 

If there’s any concern that Manchin might compromise when it comes to abortion, it might be because there’s concern that he already has.

Wanda Franz has known Manchin since he was a freshman delegate to the statehouse in 1982. The president of West Virginians for Life recalls with fondness how the young politician, only 35 at the time, was eager to collaborate with the movement to advance pro-life legislation, even in the face of pressure and criticism from his party and the labor unions, which took a strong stance in favor of abortion rights at the time. 

Manchin, however, was undeterred, and West Virginians for Life endorsed him throughout his 28 years in state politics.

When Manchin ran for the U.S. Senate in 2012, there were concerns that, as a Democrat in Congress, he would face inordinate pressure to compromise his pro-life positions. West Virginians for Life considered the factors and ultimately decided to endorse both Manchin and his pro-life, Republican challenger.

Manchin won, but as soon as he got to Washington, Franz says something changed. In one of his first votes as a senator, he voted in favor of funding Planned Parenthood, a move that Franz describes as “a signal for us that this was going to be much harder than he had thought.” 

Father O’Donnell, although far more confident in Manchin’s authenticity, said Franz was “probably on to something” in her assessment that pressure from national Democratic leadership may be constraining Manchin in ways he wasn’t while in Charleston.

“I mean, God only knows what happens behind closed doors,” he said.

As a result, a man who Franz once considered a pro-life champion has become something of a question mark.

“Over the years, it has been hard for us to know what he would do from one bill to another,” said Franz, whose organization did not endorse Manchin in his 2018 Senate bid. She says she has now come to expect “doublespeak” and noncommittal language from the senator when it comes to abortion legislation. 

Franz insists that she still considers Manchin a friend, but it saddens her that West Virginians for Life feel like they can’t continue to endorse him.

“When it really matters, when it really counts, when there’s really a political stake involved, that’s when we lose him.”

Another concern for Catholics is the so-called Equality Act, a measure the U.S. bishops warn would harm women and children by imposing errant frameworks of sexuality and gender via federal law, while also threatening the religious convictions of health-care workers and faith-based charitable services and schools. 

Last session, Manchin was one of only two congressional Democrats (the other being Illinois Rep. Dan Lipinski, who was defeated in a primary last year) to speak out against the measure, saying that he would not vote for it “as written,” given insufficient control for local authorities, especially regarding schools and students identifying as transgender. 

Manchin may have made a stand then, but with the incoming Biden administration identifying passage of the Equality Act as a top priority, the pressure will be on the West Virginia Democrat.


A Public Catholic

No one, Franz included, questions the sincerity of Manchin’s Catholic faith, nor his personal pro-life convictions. Manchin, for instance, is on good terms with the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston and recently took part in a discussion on integrating ecology, economy and human dignity with Bishop Mark Brennan. And at his childhood parish of St. Peter’s in Farmington, where Manchin once served as an altar boy, Father Vincy Illickal says “Joe” is a fixture in the pews when he visits over the holidays and speaks deeply and sincerely about the importance of his Catholic faith and his gratitude to God.

Instead, the concern of critics like Franz is that Manchin’s personal views run the risk of not translating into his public life. President Biden, after all, styles himself as “personally pro-life” and a devout Catholic, but recently capped off what has been a gradual, decades-long erosion of his once-pro-life commitments by compromising his long-standing support for the Hyde Amendment to help him secure his party’s nomination and committing to legislating Roe v. Wade into federal law if the landmark pro-abortion decision is overturned by the current U.S. Supreme Court.

As Kilwein points out, Manchin isn’t anywhere near as liberal as Biden is, and the 73-year-old’s senior status might make a dramatic shift leftward unlikely. However, when it comes to repealing the Hyde Amendment and what Manchin might do, there seems to be a variance of opinions, or at least levels of confidence.

Kilwein says the issue is “just teed up for Joe Manchin,” in the sense that it would be an easy effort for the moderate to resist his party on the issue. 

Father O’Donnell, hesitant to offer too much speculation, simply said he would “not be surprised” if the senator continues to support the Hyde Amendment. Franz, meanwhile, says she believes Manchin would maintain his support for the measure, but she would “have to wait until I know for sure.”

One thing she does know: Political moderation has its place, but not when it comes to protecting the unborn.

“You can’t have it both ways. There are some issues where you can cut a deal and walk a fine line, but when it comes to the pro-life issue, you’re either there or you’re not.”

With a mixed record up to this point, time will tell where Manchin stands.

The opening day of the 15th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops is seen in the Vatican Synod Hall on Oct. 3, 2018.

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