Will a Doomed Voting-Rights Push Really Help Biden?

Looks like Biden will talk more often and more forcefully on voting rights in the days just ahead. Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

After a solid year of advancing federal voting-rights bills that pass the House and predictably die in the Senate thanks to resolute Republican obstruction, Democrats are reportedly about to undertake the maximum heave-ho on the issue. This week, Democrats are set to launch a “supercharged” voting-rights push in the Senate, tied to the anniversary of the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol.

Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is going to bring at least one major voting-rights bill, Senator Joe Manchin’s Freedom to Vote Act (itself a more modest version of the earlier comprehensive For the People Act), to the floor in hopes that Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema will miraculously recant their endlessly repeated opposition to significant filibuster reform. If there is any evidence this strategy will actually work, it’s the best-kept secret in Washington.

So assuming this is a doomed effort, why would Democrats undertake it?

The answer you most often hear is that voting-rights activists and the “base” voters most concerned about voting rights believe Democrats have subordinated “their” issues to a poll-driven, swing-voter-pleasing focus on economic issues, as reflected in the enacted bipartisan infrastructure bill and the notoriously unenacted Build Back Better package. This alleged lack of emphasis on voting rights is thought to have been reflected by a relative lack of attention from President Joe Biden himself, as National Public Radio reported in November:

“The time is to fight, we’ve taken enough defensive blows,” … the Rev. Al Sharpton said Wednesday after Senate Republicans again blocked debate on a piece of major voting rights legislation. This time, it was the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which is named for the late Georgia Congressman John Lewis, who died last year.

“Today Black America was stabbed in the back. The president needs to use his bully pulpit and say that this is intolerable,” Sharpton said.

So in the “supercharged” voting-rights campaign we are about to see, the president, whose job-approval ratings among non-white voters have been dangerously sagging, will be front and center. But again: If, as appears very likely, the campaign ultimately fails, will it represent a net positive for Biden and Democrats, or simply more evidence of futility, if not insincerity?

It’s a question that does not seem to occur to most congressional Democrats and left-of-center opinion leaders in their cheerleading for more heat and noise on voting rights, despite abundant evidence that Sinema and especially Manchin are overjoyed at the opportunity to triangulate against their supposedly socialistic and woke party. Perhaps if Biden used his bully pulpit to educate Americans on the arcane details of the filibuster, the Republican abandonment of its once-robust support for federal voting-rights laws, and his lack of any real power to bring gleefully rebellious Democrats like Manchin and Sinema to heel, it might do some good. But you get the sense at this point that many frustrated voting-rights proponents believe denying Joe Manchin Senate gym privileges or West Virginia post-office improvements would do the trick. So the more Biden and other Democrats simply agitate the air about the transcendent importance of protecting democracy, the more they look feckless, if not actively disingenuous, when they cannot deliver.

How have Democrats arrived at this lose-lose situation? I would argue it’s the product of three interrelated trends.

First and most obviously, for all of Donald Trump’s rage toward “Broken Old Crow” Mitch McConnell, the wily Kentuckian has made Senate Republican solidarity in filibustering most Democratic-sponsored legislation the fulcrum of his party’s power, in combination with aggressive efforts in states it controls to frustrate Democratic constituencies on voting rights and other matters. With the exception of infrastructure legislation that was the subject of bipartisan negotiations during the Trump administration, there has been no prospect of Republican votes for Biden-sponsored legislation, which has in turn inflated the extraordinary power of “dissenters” like Manchin and Sinema.

Second, that power to influence and obstruct one’s own party has never been more apparent or attention-grabbing. Conservative media and donors will richly reward Manchin and Sinema for every act of heresy, even as Republican extremism and voter polarization make it less likely than ever that Democrats will punish them.

And third, a whole generation of endless progressive campaigns for a Democratic Party with “spine” and a willingness to “fight” has probably seduced a lot of activists and rank-and-file voters alike into the flawed belief that willpower alone can accomplish anything and everything, particularly if Democrats have a governing trifecta like the one they possess right now. The dangerous flip side of this faith in pugilism is that failure to achieve results when success seems possible will always look like surrender, generating still more demands for political magic.

The sad truth is that the same narrow 2020 House and Senate victories that made any expectations of Democratic legislative success possible made transformative success very unlikely, as I argued in October when it became obvious BBB was in deep trouble:

The underlying problem is a 2020 election that fell short of expectations, and fell even shorter of what the party needed to govern effectively. Initial relief over finally ejecting Donald Trump from the White House and excitement over winning control of the Senate should not obscure the fact that Democrats emerged from the last election with the stage set for their present troubles.

Two or perhaps just one more Democratic senator (say, North Carolina’s Cal Cunningham, whose steady lead in the polls evaporated due to the emergence of a late-cycle sex scandal) might have made all the difference in the world for the ability of Democrats to enact both economic and voting-rights legislation in 2021. As it is, the most rational calculation is that Democrats won’t be in a position to enact significantly controversial legislation (as voting-rights legislation has sadly become) until 2029, given the likelihood of (a) loss of the House in 2022; (b) loss of the Senate in 2024; and (c) either loss of the presidency in 2024 or a terrible midterm in 2026.

This truth does not provide a very inspiring message for Joe Biden and his party. But tough talk followed by failure may be even more counterproductive. What Democrats really need right now isn’t some sort of short-term “supercharged” campaign that raises expectations they probably cannot meet. They need a way to convey that they — and this country — are in a sustained battle between two very different concepts of America’s future, a battle in which disengagement or disappointment by Democratic voters will guarantee defeat more surely than all the shortcomings of politicians put together.

Will a Doomed Voting-Rights Push Really Help Biden?