Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) announced earlier today that he will oppose the agreement reached between the P5+1 and Iran to constrain Iran’s nuclear program. He joins a short list of Senate Democrats, including Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Robert Menendez (D-NJ), and Ben Cardin (D-MD), that have broken with their party to oppose the deal.
Although Menendez, Schumer, and Cardin had offered hints that they were conflicted about the agreement and that their support was, by no means, a certainty, Manchin had openly flirted with supporting the deal. In an appearance on Face The Nation on July 26, he said that he was “leaning very strongly” toward supporting the agreement. Manchin presented the choice between the JCPOA and the alternative as a choice between war and peace, telling CBS host John Dickerson:
The only other option is go to war, and I’m not ready to send our people into harms way again until people in that part of the world want to clean up their own mess.
Appearing on MSNBC’s Morning Joe the following Tuesday, Manchin further defended the deal: “The bottom line is, do we go it alone, or with other allies?”
Manchin warned that if Iran had “bamboozled” Secretary of State John Kerry, as he had heard suggested, “then they bamboozled all the P5 and most of the free world. I’d rather go with the world than myself.”
But Manchin’s statement today, announcing his opposition to the deal, seemed to contradict his defense of the administration’s diplomacy back in July.
Although acknowledging that West Virginian constituents would pay a high price in any future military conflicts due to having “one of the highest rates of military service in the nation,” Manchin now rejected the argument he made in July that “the only other option is go to war.” He said:
However, I don’t believe a vote against this deal forces us to abandon the diplomatic path. We must continue to pursue peace, but on terms that promise a lasting peace for the United States and our allies.
Manchin didn’t offer an explanation of how he plans to pursue a diplomatic path with Iran and America’s European allies if the U.S. fails to approve the JCPOA, or whether his warning about the dangers of going it alone and splitting with European negotiating powers still holds water.
He probably won’t have to explain these contradictions anytime soon. Forty-one Senate Democrats now support the deal, enough to prevent a disapproval motion from reaching President Obama’s desk.
Manchin’s opposition, coming in the final days of vote whipping, was probably calculated to have little impact on the legislative outcome and destined for a footnote in the long battle over the Obama administration’s signature foreign policy initiative.
But the question remains: Why did Manchin ultimately decide to side with Senate Republicans and only three other Democrats to oppose the Iran deal and contradict his own arguments supporting the agreement?
Reasons for Reversal
The best explanations point to political pressures rather than actual concerns about the JCPOA, which he had already defended as the best option to prevent another war in the Middle East.
Manchin was targeted by anti-Iran deal groups, including AIPAC, over the summer, presumably due to his position as a Democratic senator from a state in which Obama only carried 35.5% of the vote in 2012.
Anti-deal advertising, paid for by the dark-money group American Security Initiative and the AIPAC-affiliated Citizens for a Nuclear Free Iran, dominated political ad buys over the summer months in West Virginia, according to the nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation.
While pressuring him on the airwaves, pro-Israel donors also provided Manchin with considerable campaign contributions. NORPAC, a political action committee that backs AIPAC, endorsed his 2010 Senate candidacy. According to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, Manchin received $122,110 since 2010 from pro-Israel donors, many of them affiliated with NORPAC.
Strikingly, only three of those donors, with contributions totaling $5,800, were actually from West Virginia.
Indeed, the campaign contributions from AIPAC-associated groups, heavy spending on ads pressuring Manchin, and the senator’s precarious position as a Democrat representing a state whose constituents voted against the Democratic president in both 2008 and 2012, all paint a picture of a Democrat who, if the votes allowed it, would seek the opportunity to split with the president on a pivotal vote.
And although Manchin made compelling arguments in favor of the deal in July, there were hints that he might waiver as early as March, when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed a joint session of Congress to decry Obama’s nuclear diplomacy with Iran, a move so divisive that 58 Democrat chose to boycott the speech.
David Weigel, reporting for Bloomberg Politics, wrote:
“My friends, for over a year, we’ve been told that no deal is better than a bad deal,” said Netanyahu. “Well, this is a bad deal. It’s a very bad deal. We’re better off without it.”
Very few Democrats applauded that line; those who did, like Arizona Representative Krysten Sinema and West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, had to win over conservative voters.
Rep. Sinema (D-AZ) hasn’t yet announced whether she will support the deal.