Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer. Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call
the national interest

Joe Manchin’s Incoherent Case for Letting Republicans Destroy Democracy

The most powerful senator ties himself in knots.

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer. Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call

What does Joe Manchin want? The inscrutable whims of the West Virginia senator and 50th Senate vote have always controlled the future of the Biden administration’s domestic agenda. As such, Manchin’s desires are the subject of daily speculation and the vessel into which his party has projected a mix of hope and rage.

It would be a relief of sorts if Manchin would simply tell us what he wants. The problem is that his statements frequently conflict with each other. (On infrastructure, he has alternatively demanded that the bill be enormous, that it be fully paid for, and obtain Republican support, all of which are individually difficult and collectively impossible.) His position on voting rights is, if anything, even less clear.

In an op-ed yesterday, Manchin laid out a series of propositions that purport to explain his position, but upon close inspection make it difficult to understand what he believes or wants.

The internal contradiction of Manchin’s position is summarized in the first two sentences. The first one establishes that the right to vote is fundamental: “The right to vote is fundamental to our American democracy and protecting that right should not be about party or politics.” But in the next line, he qualifies that this right can “never” be protected in a partisan fashion: “Least of all, protecting this right, which is a value I share, should never be done in a partisan manner.”

Here we have two values in conflict: the right to vote, and the evil of partisan voting laws. Manchin claims the first to be “fundamental,” but if he is unwilling to violate the second value to secure it, then it clearly isn’t.

Perhaps Manchin is implying that, in his hierarchy of values, bipartisanship trumps all else. And he does, quite hopefully, propose a different bill to protect voting:

The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act would update the formula states and localities must use to ensure proposed voting laws do not restrict the rights of any particular group or population. My Republican colleague, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, has joined me in urging Senate leadership to update and pass this bill through regular order. I continue to engage with my Republican and Democratic colleagues about the value of the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and I am encouraged by the desire from both sides to transcend partisan politics and strengthen our democracy by protecting voting rights.

So what happens if and when this bipartisan bill fails? Well, then the voting system will be determined by a series of state-level vote-suppression laws, all of which will have been enacted on a party-line basis. (Note that none of the 50 states have ever sought to impose their own supermajority requirement, despite its putative value in protecting minority rights.)

Maybe Manchin thinks it’s fine for states to pass Republican-only voting restrictions. Or maybe he thinks it’s bad, but less bad than overriding it with a national-level bill to protect voting rights that requires curtailing the filibuster.

But Manchin doesn’t think that. He explicitly argues that this would “destroy” democracy: “Whether it is state laws that seek to needlessly restrict voting or politicians who ignore the need to secure our elections, partisan policymaking won’t instill confidence in our democracy — it will destroy it.”

Destroying democracy sounds pretty bad. Indeed, that description would seem to be the worst possible outcome. The only way to prevent that outcome would be either to weaken or abolish the filibuster to pass voting protections, or to threaten to do so as leverage to get Republican support. But Manchin flatly rules out either, asserting, “I will not vote to weaken or eliminate the filibuster.”

Why is he choosing this? Because, Manchin argues, “Voting and election reform that is done in a partisan manner will all but ensure partisan divisions continue to deepen.” And that is probably correct: Partisan divisions are likely to continue deepening if the Senate enacts protections for Americans’ right to vote. They will also probably continue deepening if it doesn’t. Partisan divisions have been deepening for a long time.

The key difference is that, if the Senate fails to act, then we’ll have deepening partisan divisions plus state-level partisan voting restrictions that, in Manchin’s own estimation, will destroy democracy. And that, somehow, is the outcome Manchin says he has chosen.

Manchin’s Case for Letting Republicans Destroy Democracy