Biden Isn’t Trying Hard Enough on Voting Rights
If you blinked, you may have missed the Democrats’ latest push for new voting rights legislation, during which the effort gain renewed hope and then sank to an all-time low within a matter of days. It began with a speech last Tuesday, when President Biden called on the Senate to carve out an exception to the filibuster to advance two bills — the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the Freedom to Vote Act — both of which have already passed the House. Within two days of that speech, Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema announced that while they support the bills in principle, they will not support any changes to the filibuster, essentially rendering the legislative push dead. Then, Senate Democrats announced that they would be putting the bills up for a vote anyway, daring their colleagues to stand in the way of legislation that commands significant public support.
The mainstream reaction has, understandably, focused mainly on Sinema and Manchin. The conventional wisdom holds that, so long as Manchin and Sinema aren’t willing to play ball, there’s nothing Biden or any Democrat can do. It’s simply a matter of math, and with the slimmest majority possible in the Senate and a colleague from deep-red West Virginia, we shouldn’t have unreasonable expectations.
The narrative is certainly attractive. For one thing, it is simple to digest: at this juncture, Manchin and Sinema are quite literally the only things standing in the way of the these two bills. And it confirms Democrats’ predetermined beliefs about good and bad, placing blame squarely on the shoulders of the obstructionist centrists while absolving Biden and the party leaders. But beyond that, there’s little substance to the theory, which essentially asks Democrats to forget virtually everything that led us here and pretend failure was preordained.
At the root of the conventional wisdom is a set of assumptions about Manchin and Sinema, mainly that we should not expect them to act in the best interests of the Democratic Party because, well, that’s what centrists do. As I’ve written before, simply as a matter of politics, this assumption doesn’t make sense: Manchin and Sinema are still Democrats who rely heavily on Democratic votes, and there is no obvious benefit to single-handedly squashing bills which are widely popular to their voters. But as a matter of practice as well, this assumption is just wrong. Manchin, for example, has mostly been a reliable Democrat throughout his career, opposing the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, voting to impeach President Trump, and opposing the GOP’s tax cuts.
It may make us comfortable to believe that Manchin and Sinema are unmovable, and that any effort to exert leverage over them is futile. But it can’t be squared with their actions. Susan Collins is also a centrist, but there’s a reason you almost never see her (or any other centrist Republican) single-handedly obstruct hugely important pieces of the GOP’s agenda — because the leadership of the Republican Party embraces politics as a fluid and malleable exercise and understands how to use leverage to their advantage.
It’s here that the conventional wisdom breaks down entirely. The idea that Democrats have exhausted their options to pressure Manchin and Sinema — or really that they’ve tried at all — is a borderline outrageous claim for a professional political commentator to make. When it comes to voting rights, it is difficult to pin-point even one concrete action Democratic leaders have taken to pressure Manchin and Sinema, aside from private meetings with President Biden at the White House. In fact, the only example of Democrats actively asserting leverage over Manchin and Sinema on any issue was Biden’s Build Back Better plan, when Democratic leaders withheld a vote on the separate, bipartisan infrastructure bill in order to force Manchin and Sinema to negotiate on the broader bill. But even then, Democrats balked and allowed the bipartisan bill to pass — lo and behold, Biden’s Build Back Better plan is now basically dead.
The uncomfortable truth that Democrats don’t want to acknowledge is that the position Manchin and Sinema are taking now — that the filibuster should not be reformed for voting rights — is the same position President Biden (and many current Democratic Senators) took virtually his entire career, and didn’t fully reverse until literally last week. The idea that Democrats were going to similarly engineer a reversal by Manchin and Sinema within a matter of days is outright delusional, and a rejection of even the most rudimentary idea of politics. This is why progressives implored Biden to aggressively pursue the issue far sooner, so that Biden, Congressional leaders and activists could spend more than a couple days attempting to move Manchin and Sinema. Sure, it may have failed, but that was always the only way any significant voting rights bill was going to be achieved.
But Biden and the Democrats chose not to do that. They chose instead to rely on an outdated and feckless view of politics which says, “If I can’t sit them down over a beer and convince them, it’s not going to happen.” What’s even more infuriating is that, while Democrats were rejecting the idea that exerting leverage over their colleagues was worthwhile, Republicans wasted no time. Indeed, as Jane Mayer documented last year, Republican activists and donors have been preparing for years to squash any renewed push for voting rights. One of their chief targets? Senator Joe Manchin:
On March 20th, several major conservative groups, including Heritage Action, Tea Party Patriots Action, Freedom Works, and the local and national branches of the Family Research Council, organized a rally in West Virginia to get Senator Joe Manchin, the conservative Democrat, to come out against the legislation. They also pushed Manchin to oppose any efforts by Democrats to abolish the Senate’s filibuster rule, a tactical step that the Party would probably need to take in order to pass the bill. […] On Thursday, Manchin issued a statement warning Democrats that forcing the measure through the Senate would “only exacerbate the distrust that millions of Americans harbor against the U.S. government.”
That Republicans apparently spent more time and effort pressuring a Democratic Senator on voting rights than Democrats did themselves should be a serious wakeup call for every member of the party. It’s impossible to know whether and to what extent right-wing pressure influenced Manchin’s position on the filibuster, but the fact remains that it went virtually unopposed. Any reasonable political observer knew that moving Manchin and Sinema on the filibuster would take a massive years-long effort of political activism from the top down. Democratic leaders expressly decided against it.
One of Biden’s oft-repeated pitches throughout the 2020 presidential election was that personal relationships matter, and that through civility and persuasion alone, he could do things that no other candidate was capable of. To many, this was received as a refreshing return to normalcy. But in reality, it represented an abject rejection of politics that was always destined to fail when pitted against the right-wing machine, which has no similar qualms about exercising raw power to achieve its goals. Until Democrats accept their own power and embrace it, they’ll just have to keep crossing off priorities on their agenda.