West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin is running for Senate as a Democrat. Here’s his latest ad:

Rub your eyes all you like, it won’t change the fact that you just saw a grown man shoot a piece of legislation with a rifle. I’m surprised he can aim with all that flop sweat in his eyes.

Manchin’s been a popular governor, but lately he’s gotten caught up in the conservative backlash and fallen behind his Republican opponent, John Raese. That’s why he’s flailing to the right. Dem leadership says this is a must-win race to keep control of the Senate, so they’re stumping for him, but as Nate Silver says, Manchin is refudiating virtually every policy position associated with Democrats, so it’s not clear what exactly they win if he wins.

It’s not just the lurch to the right, it’s the dishonesty that accompanies it. Manchin says he’ll protect Second Amendment rights, as though they’re under assault, but gun control groups are furious with Obama. The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence says the administration “has done little to clamp down on firearms since being elected. Instead, the president has signed into law two bills that favored gun-rights supporters,” allowing guns in national parks and on Amtrak trains.

Manchin says he’ll cut federal spending. In 2005, the last year data were available, West Virginia received $1.76 in federal money for every $1.00 it spent in federal taxes; that number’s been rising since at least the early 1980s. It ranks fifth on the list of states that receive the largest net benefit from federal taxing and spending, mainly due to social services for an aging population. When Manchin promises to cut federal spending, he’s directly threatening his state’s citizens.

Manchin says he’ll repeal “the bad parts” of Obamacare. First of all, this is fantasy — Obamacare is a package and the “good parts” can’t work without the “bad parts.” Second, Manchin has constantly changed his position on this. Third, if he did follow through with it, the consequences for West Virginians would be disastrous.

Joe Manchin, friend of coalAnd then of course there’s coal and cap-and-trade. Manchin has been more and more outspoken in his determination to defend his state’s coal industry at all costs. That’s great for coal barons like Don Blankenship, but not so much for West Virginia. Research has shown that Central Appalachian coal is in decline. Production is likely to be down by half by the end of this decade, and that’s without any climate legislation or further restrictions on MTR. The numbers already show that coal is a net drag on West Virginia’s state budget [PDF]. Here’s what a recent report found:

While every job and every dollar of revenue generated by the coal industry provides an economic benefit for the state of West Virginia and the counties where the coal is produced, the net impact of the West Virginia coal industry, when taking all revenues and expenditures into account, amounted to a net cost to the state of $97.5 million in Fiscal Year 2009. [Emphasis mine.]

There’s evidence that, toward the end of his life, West Virginia’s venerable Sen. Robert Byrd was beginning to understand that the state can’t just dig its heels in and stop history. But Manchin is no Byrd.

One way to slow the decline of the coal industry would be to develop carbon capture and sequestration technology. Unfortunately for Manchin, the only way to raise enough money to make an appreciable difference on CCS development is … you guessed it … a cap-and-trade bill. In fact, a cap-and-trade bill is arguably the only thing that can save coal. But the polls say West Virginians don’t like it, so Manchin shot it.

He’s clueless about all this, of course. I was at a private event once with Manchin and a couple of other governors, chatting with a small crowd about energy policy. It became clear over the course of the event that he doesn’t understand cap-and-trade very well. And by “very well” I mean at all. I’m not being a condescending policy wonk when I say that he doesn’t seem to understand anything about energy policy at all beyond the fact that there’s coal mining in W.Va. and so it’s his job to defend coal.

I asked him, “What if carbon capture and sequestration doesn’t work out and there is no future for coal in a clean energy economy? What’s your Plan B for West Virginia?” Attempts to parse what followed proved fruitless. Suffice to say, he’s betting on coal.

Leaders show the way to a better future and inspire citizens to follow them there. Then there are the politicians, who cater to their constituents’ most feverish fears and prejudices in exchange for another shot at power. Manchin, like John McCain, has revealed his character in response to America’s current fever — a small man, no matter how big his rifle.