West Virginia governor Joe Manchin once supported Obamacare, saying days before it passed in March that he'd vote "for it" if he were in the House of Representatives. Now, in the midst of a tight Senate race with Republican John Raese, the very popular Manchin has run away from the very unpopular health care law. He's called for for "repealing the things that are bad," such as the individual mandate, the federal funding for abortion coverage, and the 1099 reporting requirement for businesses. But he hasn't gone into great detail about what, exactly, he supports in the law.
Asked Friday night if he wants to repeal the tax hikes and Medicare cuts that are supposed to pay for Obamacare, Manchin dodged the question and eventually said he doesn't know. "I haven't gotten into that," Manchin told me before addressing fewer than 100 supporters at a Chinese restaurant in West Virginia's eastern panhandle. He suggested there may be other ways to pay for it than by raising $500 billion in taxes and taking $500 billion in Medicare cuts by 2019. But he didn't get into specifics:
TWS: Governor ... you support repealing some of the bad parts of Obamacare--
MANCHIN: The bad parts, yeah.
TWS: Does that include the tax hikes and the Medicare cuts? Do you want to get rid of those?
MANCHIN: The bottom line--what we're looking at right now is how do we keep the people from getting taken off [of their health insurance policies] because of preexisting conditions.
That's just something that Democrats and Republicans are both in agreement on. And the things that we've looked at that really bother us right now, the 1099, the firewall for abortions is not strong enough--all those things--and the mandates. It's just not who we are as West Virginians.
TWS: But on the tax [hikes] and the Medicare cuts, do you want to get rid of those, too? Those are what are used to pay for the [health insurance] subsidies. Do you want to get rid of them as well?
MANCHIN: Well, we're looking at the whole thing basically because I think there has to be a priority set. Medicare has to be protected. Social Security has to be protected. This country's got to get its priorities and its act together like we did in West Virginia six years ago.
TWS: That's my question--because you've either got to have the Medicare cuts and the tax hikes to pay for it, or you can't pay for it. So how do you do that?
MANCHIN: There's a different way, but basically what you do is you set your priorities, which is what we did in West Virginia. You set your priorities, you always do that. ... There's a lot of other spending going on in this country that maybe doesn't need to be done, and there's an awful lot of size of state government should be cut.
TWS: So on the issue of the Medicare cuts or the tax hikes ... you favor repealing them or keeping them in the health care [law]?
MANCHIN: I haven't gotten into that. Basically, what we're doing is we're talking about the things--find what we can agree on. Democrats and Republicans have got to come together on something. And basic health care and health reforms--
TWS: So you haven't yet decided on that issue--on the Medicare cuts and tax hikes?
Manchin then slipped into the Peking Restaurant, and made it abundantly clear why he has a job approval rating in the high 60s: he governed as a conservative and is a natural politician with an ability to personally connect with voters. "We need to mine every lump of coal we can," Manchin said. He highlighted his hostility toward cap-and-trade. "You know how I feel about that. Have you seen that ad?"
"Thirty-ought-six!" a fan yelled, referring to the rifle Manchin used to shoot a copy of the cap-and-trade bill in a now-infamous campaign commercial.
"It was a good ad, wasn't it?," Manchin said with a smile.
Manchin touted his A-grade on fiscal issues from the Cato Institute: "Who would have thought this little state would be a financial beacon for the whole country during a most difficult time?" (Unemployment is at 8.9%, about a point below the national average.)
Manchin preached about West Virginia's values--"the God fearing family loving people that we are"--and shared fond memories of meeting the late Robert Byrd in the late 1950s, when Manchin was just 10 years old, at his grandfather's grocery store. "Papa loved to preach and talk about the Bible and cut meat," Manchin said of his grandfather. "I heard the Godawfullest racket in the butcher room and I couldn't figure out--these two men were going at it, preaching the Bible, arguing about how to cut a chicken up and it just went on and on. I go back there and my grandfather, Papa, said, 'Joe, I want you to meet Senator Robert Byrd.'"
It's enough to make a Democrat cringe (well, aside from the praise for Byrd). Of course, Manchin would probably like to revert to his Obamacare-supporting past once he gets into the Senate--no sure thing in a wave election year with Republican Raese a few points behind in the polls. Manchin made it clear that his heart is really with the Democratic party. "When times were tough and things were bad, and I've heard my grandfather talk about depressions, it was always the principles of the Democratic party that came to the rescue of the citizens of America," Manchin told supporters.
If elected to the Senate, Manchin will probably vote with the Democratic leadership when he can get away with it--which probably won't be that often. The winner on November 2 will only serve out the remaining two years of Robert Byrd's last term.