Steve Clemons is a D.C. institution — an operator who connects some of the biggest power players in the capital. He also happens to be the confidant of the most powerful senator in Washington, Democrat Joe Manchin. Playbook author Ryan Lizza joins Clemons for breakfast at the Four Seasons Hotel in Georgetown to dish on what’s motivating Manchin behind the scenes, and what he might do next.
How Steve met Joe Manchin:
Steve: I had gotten to know Joe Biden before. I’d been invited to some holiday parties and whatnot at [President] Joe Biden’s home as vice president…
Ryan: Wait wait, let’s not bury the lead here. How did you get to know Joe Biden?
Steve: Well, let me just finish. And then I meet Joe Manchin at Biden’s home. First time. That’s where I first actually physically met him.
Ryan: What year’s that?
Steve: I’m really bad with years.
Ryan: What era would it be? Is it Biden as vice president?
Steve: Yeah, Biden is vice president.
Ryan: So it’s at the vice president’s mansion?
Steve: At the vice president’s residence. It was a holiday party, I think, if I remember correctly. We began talking about “don’t ask, don’t tell” and he was the senator, just like today. Hanging out and likely not on board with “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal. I talked to him about it at that reception. He said “Steve, you know, we’ve got a lot of West Virginia military families.” I said “Look, I’m an Air Force brat. I know military families, believe me. Military families are over it. It’s not a big deal.” So, we had this conversation back and forth. It was pretty good. And then he for family reasons I know now, but I didn’t know him well, he missed a vote on “don’t ask, don’t tell. ”At that time, I didn’t look at it as cowardly. I knew he was opposed to change. Missing the vote kept him out of that. He wasn’t going to be in favor. Anyway, I got a call, you know, from him and he says “Come up and see me.” We had a conversation and that kind of led to a deeper appreciation I had for how serious he was about a lot of wonky things that were interesting, like corruption.
Ryan: Where did you meet him?
Steve: In his office. I mean, I didn’t want to meet him. I didn’t want him to call.
Steve: Oh, no, I did not want to. I mean, Heather Bresch [Sen. Manchin’s daughter] called me and said, “My dad’s going to call you” and I said “I would really rather him not call.” We went up there, and at the time, the debates of the sequester were up and I found it serious. I found it serious and I said, “You know what? I don’t like where he is on “don’t ask, don’t tell,” but he’s doing some interesting things and now I have an inside track to talking to him about serious stuff. I will not agree with him on everything.” Alright, so just hold that place for a minute. Down the way, The Atlantic asked me to host what we call the editors breakfast, which is the Saturday morning before the White House Correspondents Dinner. Rachel Maddow had her new book on military issues called “Drift,” and she said, “Would you interview me, Steve?” And I said, “Well, I’ll interview you if I can have you have this done at the editors breakfast. That will be kind of a hot ticket. I can be interviewing you at the Correspondents Dinner.” We got a good turnout, mainly kind of the gay crowd, her groupies, you know? But it wasn’t what I wanted and it was missing… What’s the unusual piece of spice in this? And I said to myself, “Wow, Joe Manchin.” So I call, which…
Ryan: Which is what everyone thinks of when they think of the unusual spice in a social situation.
Steve: But he was on the Armed Services Committee at that time. I call Rachel and I said, “Listen, would you mind if I put Joe Manchin on stage with you? You guys are like oil and water. It will be interesting to see this, where you agree and where you disagree. I just think it would add a lot.” She says “Okay. Would he do it?” I called and said I’ll find out. So, I called him that night and he’s like, in less than two seconds, said absolutely. And it just went insane. Then when I kind of did what I thought was, to be biased, a really fantastic interview with him on military and defense issues and the big issues of the day, I said “Oh, let’s go to the audience.” Rachel jumped out of her chair and [said] “Can I be the first one to ask the senator a question?” She jumped out, and then she asked him about his position on “don’t ask, don’t tell” and the LGBT community.
Ryan: Did you set her up to do that?
Steve: No, she did it on her own. He then said to her, “You know, today, if we were to do the vote again, I would vote for repeal.” He changed his view on it. By Monday night he was on her show. So you asked this thing about putting people together and changing things and having that… I mean, that kind of thing is what I live for, right? Hundreds of times that kind of thing has happened, but you just kind of figure out, how do you make it interesting?
What’s on Manchin’s mind:
Ryan: I heard that last night [the night of January 12] you had an interesting dinner.
Ryan: So, who did you have dinner with last night, Steve?
Steve: The first dinner or the second dinner?
Ryan: Well, I don’t know. Let’s hear it.
Steve: No, I mean, like sorry, I gotta be careful, but I had dinner with Joe Manchin and with Randi Weingarten at Cafe Milano. And I think, Randi…
Ryan: This is on the eve of when Joe Biden is going up to the Senate to speak at the caucus lunch and basically try and pressure [Senators] Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema to change their views on the filibuster and support voting rights. So this is on the eve… You’re having dinner with Joe Manchin on the eve of one of the most important days of his Senate career.
Steve: I can talk about what I think the players are doing [unintelligible]. I’d rather not talk just about the conversation at the dinner.
Ryan: Well, I think it’s been reported that Randi was trying. Randi helped him with the compromise voting rights legislation.
Steve: What Randi did, she said, look, you had a problem… So much of Washington, I just wanna be honest with people, is sometimes… It’s not a function of corruption or special interests. It’s sometimes just a function of lack of imagination, or people are driven by inertia. I kind of see a role that fits with my role as an opinion journalist. I’m not a reporting journalist, right? So that’s a different, big difference, as somebody who has views and attitudes. But I try to be responsible and transparent about it in responsible ways. I also see my role as one of opening the aperture of different people who are in conflict or who are not there. Opening aperture so they can see possibilities they might not have otherwise thought they had. I look at that as a legitimate and actually a needed part of my role in Washington, right?
I think the point is that Joe Manchin, I knew, believed that S.R. 1 was too packed with things that were unrelated to the openness or the constraints on voting, and also that it was packed with issues that were more about social reform than they were about dealing with the voting questions. And he was dead, dead set against S.R. 1. What he was for was the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. But anyone that looked at the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which is commendable and important, knows it does not go far enough to address many of the problems in voting that we had seen recently, particularly with voter suppression and various kinds of things. I think that his take was we needed to modify this. I humbly suggested “Well what you’re really doing is talking about John Lewis Plus.” Randi suggested talking to Stacey Abrams, and he, in a Joe Manchin way — because he’s tried to be very chivalrous, very magnanimous — [said] “Yeah, sure. Sure, we’ll do that.” But there was a long time before that call with Stacey actually happened. They had multiple calls, and then he and Stacey really worked on putting together a voting rights outline of things that laid out some things, like voter ID that were uncomfortable for the Democrats but were potential pathways for Republican support. But they kind of cobbled it, something, together. Barack Obama and other people came along and applauded it. Even Joe Biden says “I applaud it.” So they came up with something.
Ryan: It’s the bill that they’re voting on this week, as we sit here.
Steve: What I learned last night, what I learned recently is something I did not know — and it’s because I don’t know everything about Joe Manchin, I don’t know everything about [what’s] going on — is that the bill that the Freedom to Vote Act, which a lot of people had in shorthand thought was sort of Joe Manchin, Stacey Abrams… Joe Manchin believes it is not, that it’s not. They didn’t write the bill. It didn’t have the language. It still has a lot of stuff in it he doesn’t like and that the Rules Committee under Senator Klobuchar have put together something that is no longer his bill. I did not know that.
Ryan: Huh. This is the Freedom to Vote Act that…
Steve: …that we thought was him. His name is not on it. He’s not a sponsor. So I think the big issue is that progressives like Randi Weingarten and others — I don’t want to put words in her mouth — see that they believe democracy is on the line. That the Republicans, when they come back, which they likely are to do in the next election in the House, will do, they believe, anything to win it, to keep winning or whatever. So this moment is really important to get the infrastructure right so that the game can remain fair and that people can continue to have the right to vote and are going to do this. They look at this as a really vital moment and that what had to happen, even if Joe Manchin was not going to agree to a carve out on the filibuster, is that they had to get this legislation on the floor to have it publicly debated and vetted so that all sides could be seen about where they were trying to constrain or allow by way of a high quality.
In my book, it gives Joe Manchin an opportunity to critique the Freedom to Vote Act. I don’t know whether he will or not. This is all real time happening right now, and so I don’t know what he will do on it. But I was surprised to learn that after all of the effort in all of the applause of what he and Stacey Abrams had done together, that that so-called bill is not the bill that’s on the floor. So that was new to me. That’s a big, big deal because it gives Manchin a way out of supporting this if he doesn’t want to support it, right? So I think there’s a dimension there that I think hasn’t been reported.
Ryan: Very interesting.
Steve: I think then the other side of it is they want to get it out there. But then, as we all know, with what has now happening on the floor, is that Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer have agreed in this communication between houses to substitute the Freedom to Vote Act in a piece of legislation on the Voting Rights Act, that Lewis Voting Rights Act, to allow discussion of this bill. But then to go to vote and in debate, they are back in the moment of needing 60 votes. This is where people fish or cut bait, so to speak. I don’t know where Senator Manchin will go, but I do know that the progressive community is hopeful that he will see that folks are out there. I think the other dimension out there that again — not putting Senator Manchin in there, but he’s been public about it — but his frustration is, he said the electoral certification, the Electoral College certification process needs to be reformed. Even Mitch McConnell has said that and that others say that you can’t allow a House member and a Senate member to derail millions of votes and invalidate or paralyze those votes from their states. He is frustrated that we’re not elevating and bringing forward those non-controversial or less controversial opportunities for bipartisan securing of this sacred vote process so that we do not have a repeat of January 6 ever again. He’s frustrated with the leadership that isn’t allowing those moments to happen and putting those things first and then bringing it along. So I just want to be honest that I want to lay out, I don’t want to speak for him. I don’t want to speak for Randi, but I think that’s where the tension is and maybe some of that got discussed last night.