BUCKHANNON – “We’ll talk about anything you want to – from social matters to economic matters,” West Virginia’s senior senator told an auditorium full of fresh young faces and local officials.
And chat he did.
Sen. Joe Manchin spent more than an hour Wednesday fielding questions from college students and community members on a wide range of topics from strategies for retaining employable young people in the Mountain State to President Donald Trump’s Twitter account to – yes, even the hottest topic of the day – the now-dead education ‘omnibus’ bill.
Manchin’s town hall meeting Wednesday afternoon in Christopher Hall’s Hyma Auditorium on the campus of West Virginia Wesleyan College started off on a rather bleak note, with Manchin lamenting a political landscape that’s deeply divided; threats posed by climate change and hostile foreign powers; and a tax code he adamantly believes needs fixed, among other topics.
“We live in a very divided country; the world is very troubled,” he said. “It’s not just the political discourse we have in our state and in our country, but all over the world. We’re having troubles we’ve never had before.”
Nevertheless, Manchin said he believes that a solution exists for every problem, and during the town hall, he said he hasn’t ruled out running for a second term as West Virginia’s governor in 2020.
If you missed Wednesday’s town hall, keep reading for a sampling of Manchin’s thoughts on variety of topics that surfaced during the event.
Sen. Joe Manchin … on the nation’s debt crisis:
“If I was you all sitting where you are right now – a lot of younger people – you’re starting out, and you’re starting families, I’d be concerned about the debt we’re carrying now, $22 trillion and growing faster than any time since World War II,” Manchin said. “We’ve got serious challenges there, and we’re in one of the most prosperous times we’ve ever had. Something’s wrong with the tax code.”
Manchin said the nation must live within its means, and something’s got to give.
“You might say, ‘Well, I don’t want to pay any more taxes.’ That’s fine. What do you want to give up? Somebody’s got to do something.”
The senator said he fears an impending debt crisis.
“We are the international monetary system,” he said. “The dollar is what the world works on. That might not always be the case in your lifetime if we don’t get our act together … We’re watching that very carefully. I’m afraid that there’s a looming crash that could happen because of our debt crisis.”
On national political discourse:
“Politics has become tribal. Whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican, it’s almost a tribe, where do you belong? Which tribe are you in?” Manchin said. “And if you’re in the Democrat tribe, then the Republicans are all wrong, and if you’re in the Republican tribe, the Democrats are all wrong. That’s not democracy.”
On President Donald Trump’s Feb. 15 national emergency declaration regarding the need for a border wall:
“This is why we have three branches of government for checks and balances,” Manchin said, “and I think he’s out of balance on this one, and I’ll tell you the reason why I do.”
Manchin explained he was taken by surprise when Trump and Congress failed to come to an agreement on the president’s proposed border wall and funding to keep the government open.
“I didn’t think the shutdown would happen,” he said. “I talked to the president about a week before the shutdown.
“I said, ‘Mr. President, the Democrats have won the House, so now you have a balance of power within the Congressional ranks, so you’re going to have to deal with the Democrats … it’s a balance of power, and it has to be shared, and I wasn’t sure he was grasping that.’”
Manchin, who regularly eats lunch with Trump, said he’d urged the president to support appropriations bills that would keep the government open, even if they didn’t provide $5.7 billion to fund the wall.
On immigration reform:
Manchin said some form of immigration reform is necessary.
“One thing we should all be agreeing on is, we need immigration reform,” he said.
Manchin said he believes in a path to citizenship for “people who came here the wrong way for the right reasons” after they’ve demonstrated their willingness to work, pay taxes and contribute to society.
“They’re here and they’ve been good model citizens … we need them, we want them to be part of our economy,” he said.
Regarding immigrants who have smuggled drugs into the U.S. or committed crimes – those who “came here the wrong way for the wrong reasons” – Manchin said he supported deportation.
“I want to get rid of them, and I want to make sure I have a secure border to keep them out. We need both,” he said.
On the form the wall should take:
Regarding border security, Manchin said politicians in both major parties should listen to experts on the issue.
“If you let the professionals tell you what needs to be done, they’ll tell you where we need the security, and they’ll tell you what type of security is needed, and we should pay attention,” Manchin said.
Manchin said he’s learned from experts that only about 700-900 miles of 2,100 miles along the southwestern border require a wall, fence or barricade of some sort.
“The other 1,100 miles or so was going to be done with technology – we had satellites, drones, more border agents,” he said. “The biggest thing is technology. We have to have sensors.”
He said the U.S. needs to secure ports of entry and added he’s worried that not enough dialogue is being had about shoring up entries to the northern border – to the country’s detriment.
“We don’t even talk about the Canadian border,” Manchin observed. “We don’t even hear about the northern border, right? If I was a terrorist, I’m coming through the top, I’m not coming from the bottom – it’s much easier for me to get through up there.”
“We have got to get back to the common sense,” he added.
On speculation that he might jump into the race for West Virginia governor:
Manchin served as the state’s governor from 2005-2010, and on Wednesday he called it “one of the best jobs I’ve ever had.”
In response to a student’s question about whether he plans to file to run for governor in 2020, Manchin said, “I can’t say that I wouldn’t, and I can’t say that I’m going to.”
However, now that he’s the ranking member on the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, Manchin said he’s in a prime position to influence national energy policy in a way that would benefit the state.
“Our global economy is based on some form of energy, so I’m there at the top where I can control some of the policy to make sure West Virginia is taken care of,” he said. “So I don’t want to do something irresponsible, but I’m concerned about my state, too, and some of the decisions at the head, at the top of the ticket.”
Following the town hall forum, Manchin said it ultimately depends on whether capable candidates file for the position. He also took a jab at Gov. Jim Justice without mentioning him by name.
“We’ll see who comes to the forefront,” Manchin told My Buckhannon. “By this fall, we’ll know. But I’ve said this, and I’ve said it before: the state needs full time leadership, not part-time leadership, and it doesn’t need a surrogate governor.”
Justice has acknowledged he spends much of his time at his residence in Lewisburg, not in Charleston.
On education reform in West Virginia:
“It’s a game changer, education,” Manchin said. “If you want to level the playing field, get an education because it opens doors, it allows you to level the playing field, but right now, we’re falling behind.”
After the town hall, Manchin told My Buckhannon he thought Senate Bill 451, or the education ‘omnibus’ bill, was “an overreach with very little public input.”
“For a bill with that massive of an overhaul to education, it almost takes a year to go out community by community and explain what you’re trying to accomplish, look at the education attainment you have in each area of the state … you’ve got to listen to the people,” he said. “I don’t know where that came from or who put it together or how it came to West Virginia in such a blatant fashion without having any public hearings.”
“It made no sense to me,” he concluded. “We’re throwing so much of the family circle breakdown on the school system. We expect them to feed our children, to nurture our children, to protect and care for our children, I don’t know how they have any time to educate. They’re doing everything, so at least listen to those people.”
On student loan debt:
Manchin made it clear he’s not in favor of free higher education as some on the far left – like presidential candidate Bernie Sanders – have proposed.
However, he thinks undergraduate students should be able to take out a guaranteed federal loan and have it forgiven if they attain their degree in a timely manner and work for some years after.
“There should be a time period after you have worked, paid taxes, you’ve done everything you could to get yourself debt-free, whether it’s a 10-year or 15-year period, where it’s over, you’ve done all you can, and you can’t do anymore,” Manchin said of the loan forgiveness.
On President Trump’s leadership style:
“Well, it’s definitely unorthodox,” Manchin answered when a student asked how he would compare Trump’s leadership style to past presidents.
“I’ve got one of craziest relationships with the president anyone’s ever had, especially as a Democrat,” he said. “We talk quite frequently. I go and have lunch with him on a pretty regular basis.”
Manchin said he’s urged Trump to have more dialogue with Democrats.
“I said, ‘Mr. President, every Democrat is not your enemy,’” Manchin recounted. “Some things he’s been extremely successful with, other things he’s been challenged by. In order to get over those challenges, he’s got to reach out, and he can’t listen to the pundits on cable news.”
Manchin pointed to Trump’s success in halting North Korean nuclear missile tests.
“It’s been over 400 days now, and we’ve not had a missile shot or nuclear test in North Korea, but his tweeting and this and that, it’s just unbelievable,” Manchin said. “It shouldn’t happen but that’s his style … that’s his way of communicating with his base. It really is a different style within the Republican party.”
Regardless of one’s stance on Trump, Manchin said, every American should respect him and the position he occupies.
“I’m doing everything I can to communicate and work with him,” Manchin said.
On what he’s doing to curb out-migration of employable young people from West Virginia:
“The biggest thing we have to have is you all believing you have an opportunity here,” Manchin told a student. “First of all, we do very little to connect the dots and tell you what’s available in West Virginia.”
The senator said he’s advocated and believes young people in rural areas need greater connectivity to the internet, saying when that’s lacking, it’s understandable young adults leave for places with higher-paying jobs, more opportunities and stronger gigabytes.
“We need to have that kind of activity and opportunity, so we’re trying to get rural broadband … we have a mobility fund, too, which is rural broadband,” Manchin said. “There will be $6 billion spent on rural America in the next 10 years, and if we don’t get our act together, we’re going to be left behind.”
Manchin also suggested the state of West Virginia host more job fairs and maintain a centralized online job bulletin.
“That’s the governor’s responsibility,” he said. “The state of West Virginia should be putting up a website showing you all the jobs there are, and what parts of the state they’re in, what type of pay they have, what type of benefit packages.”
And ultimately, cleaning up the addiction crisis is key to attracting larger employers and higher-paying jobs.
“Would you think Amazon would be able to find 25,000 people in one area of West Virginia that could pass a drug test? That’s the biggest concern they (employers) have … we have to basically make sure we have an employable work force.”