On Thursday afternoon, Senator Mitch McConnell pulled off something like a magic trick.
His Democratic colleague, Joe Manchin, came up with a proposed alternative to S.1, the voting-rights bill he does not support. Then Stacey Abrams endorsed it as “some basic building blocks that we need to ensure that democracy is accessible no matter your geography.” At this point, it became a Stacey Abrams proposal, not a Joe Manchin proposal. Abracadabra, trick complete.
“Senate Democrats seem to have reached a so-called ‘compromise’ election takeover among themselves,” McConnell said, according to Igor Bobic of HuffPost. “In reality, the plan endorsed by Stacey Abrams is no compromise.” He learned the trick from Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri, who said that the moment Stacey Abrams endorsed the voting-rights compromise, “it became the Stacey Abrams substitute, not the Joe Manchin substitute.” Never mind, of course, that Stacey Abrams didn’t come up with the compromise. To these Republican senators, facts are irrelevant.
So why did this happen? The answer is a little transparent. Ever eager to press the case against any expansion of voting rights, Republicans fell back onto an old strategy: They racialized the proposal. The moment Abrams, who is Black, expressed a measure of support for Manchin’s compromise, it became a radical, even dangerous, idea. Her name is a byword, evidence that liberals have breached an unacceptable standard. The hope is that, to the GOP’s base, she inspires a kind of fear that Manchin — older, white, and male — can’t possibly provoke.
It’s a desperate gambit. The Manchin proposal is a true compromise; it’s hardly the stuff of progressive fantasy. Should it ever become more than a memo, it would ban partisan gerrymandering, create new voter-ID requirements, and make “Election Day a public holiday, mandating 15 consecutive days of early voting and allowing for automatic registration through the DMV with the ability to opt out,” Politico reported. While that’s short of what S.1 proposes, it’s still further than the GOP is willing to go. As far as the mainstream party is concerned, the expansion of voting rights represents a liberal grab for power. Republicans responded to changing demographics and recent electoral losses with voter-suppression efforts, and they won’t be deterred by something as flimsy as Manchin’s memo.
Manchin should also internalize the ease with which Republicans dismissed him. On Wednesday, the Intercept reported that Manchin had urged a group of donors in a Monday call to remember Blunt was about to leave the Senate. “Roy is retiring. If some of you all who might be working with Roy in his next life could tell him, that’d be nice and it’d help our country. That would be very good to get him to change his vote. And we’re going to have another vote on this thing. That’ll give me one more shot at it,” he said.
But Blunt doesn’t appear interested in compromises. In the same call, Manchin worried that a lack of Republican support “really emboldens the far left saying, ‘I told you, how’s that bipartisan working for you now, Joe?’” The far left has a point, even if Manchin is unwilling to see it. On voting rights, compromise has become futile. The GOP has moved beyond moderate politics. There is no policy that Manchin can devise that they would likely support.
McConnell and Blunt have given the game away. Unable to admit that their policies are unpopular with most Americans, they prefer instead the familiar dog whistles. Lee Atwater is dead, but his strategy isn’t. Better to make Manchin a chump, and Abrams the bogeyman, than admit defeat. Against powerful racial grievances, bipartisanship doesn’t stand a chance.