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Politics & Government

Sen. Joe Manchin: In Midterms, 'We Lost The Middle ... The Moderates'

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Now, a conservative Democrat from a state that turned redder yesterday. Freshman Senator Joe Manchin represents West Virginia where he used to be the governor. His fellow Democratic Senator is retiring, and a Republican won that open seat yesterday in a walk. Also, the state's lone Democrat in the House lost his seat. Senator Manchin, welcome to the program.

SENATOR JOE MANCHIN: Thanks for having me, Robert.

SIEGEL: Do you feel that you've lost most of your like-minded conservative, democratic colleagues in the Senate?

MANCHIN: Well, you know what? We lost the middle, and that's the moderates. And I said, you know, you need moderates whether they be Democrats or Republicans because they'll always try to find the solutions, and they will always move forward. When you lose the moderation, then you've got serious problems about getting anything solved, so that does bother me and worry me. But you know what? The people have spoken. We've just got to see now if we're able to work together. And they know - I think all the Republicans know that they can sure reach out to me, and I'm right there, and I'll be still reaching out to them, and I don't follow the party lines.

SIEGEL: Speaking about that - speaking about reaching out, have you given even half a thought to saying, I'm going to be voting with a lot of Republicans - they're more in tune with West Virginia these days - perhaps I should become a Republican?

MANCHIN: No. You know what? I'll say it again. I'm a moderate Democrat. I'm a proud West Virginia Democrat, which is a moderate. I am fiscally responsibly. I am socially compassionate. And I think that's where most of America is. I know it's where most West Virginians are.

SIEGEL: Senator McConnell said today that as majority leader, he'll get the Senate working again. In his view, Majority Leader Harry Reid has prevented bills and amendments from getting to the floor for a vote, effectively sparing President Obama the need to veto bills he didn't like. Has Harry Reid made the Senate unworkable, and is that a fair description of how he's been the leader?

MANCHIN: I looked at Harry from this standpoint. I think he's a good person, and I think Harry was well intended. It's like a father looking over an adolescent child. You're afraid as they grow and develop they might get hurt or exposed to things that you think may harm them. What Harry didn't figure out is that this is a rough-and-tumble sport. We all got here the hard way, and we're not adolescents anymore. These are grown adults making decisions. And I thought it was wrong, and I respectfully told Harry, let us vote, Harry. It's easier for me to go back to West Virginia, tell you what I voted for or voted against, and if I made a mistake, I can say I'm sorry. I can fix that. That's a lot easier than going home and saying why I didn't vote at all and why we're not doing anything.

SIEGEL: You are reasonably hopeful that Senator McConnell will actually, by permitting you to vote, perhaps be a better majority leader than Harry Reid was?

MANCHIN: Well, I'm hoping he'll make the Senate work. And here's the thing I've also said - Harry was basically saying that the Republicans were filibustering and stopping the flow of good legislation. I said Harry, every one of us 535 members of Congress have earned the right to make a fool of themselves if that's their intention.

Now, the bottom line is we can't even show the public what we're trying to accomplish if we don't participate and let the process work. Now, if Mitch decides to let the process work, Robert, then you know what? If somebody wants to hold it up, wants to use the rules, wants to filibuster, wants to be an obstructionist, they'll have the right to show the public what their intent of being in Washington is for. And also, it might give us an opportunity to get something accomplished.

SIEGEL: Senator Manchin, we've heard the Democrats drubbing blamed on everything from the map - which seats were up this year, to outside group spending to anxiety over Ebola and ISIS. Is there some cause for soul-searching here - for a deeper problem that the Democratic Party may have with the American people and that it better solve within a couple of years?

MANCHIN: I will just say this - that I think when American people were looking, they're looking at the leadership from the president to the White House. They looked at the Senate basically kind of protecting, if you will, the leadership in the Senate. And basically I think what they've seen - and saw the Republicans doing - playing exactly into the same scenario - the politics was trumping good policy.

It wasn't about the country, it was about the politicians, the parties and what is best for them. And if we can't reverse that immediately, we're going to continue to maintain the same, which is going to be a lack of confidence by the American people. We have got to change.

SIEGEL: But it wasn't just a matter of Washington. We're talking about Democrats losing governorships - in Massachusetts, in Maryland - in places that are as blue as they get. Is there some pervasive problem of the Democrats?

MANCHIN: Yes, this was a national wave. And, you know, you have to - it is where it is. I can't camouflage it - can't cover it up. It is what it is. And it was a lack of leadership from the White House that people just didn't have confidence and faith. And it just spilled over as a national wave across. It would have been different if it had happened in one state and not the others - if it happened in West Virginia or, like you said, Massachusetts. This went across the board - 50 states, almost.

SIEGEL: Senator Manchin, thank you very much for talking with us.

MANCHIN: Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: That's Senator Joe Manchin, Democrat of West Virginia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.