Sometimes there is no plan.
The big push for Democratic voting rights is headed for a brick wall in the Senate — again. To get their bill past the filibuster, they need all 50 Senate Democrats to support changing the House rules. And the senses. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) still refuse to do so.
With failure looming, accusations and doubts about the Democrats’ voting rights strategy have become commonplace. “Has there ever been such a stupid, doomed and disastrous legislative campaign from the start? a Democratic campaign professional taunted me, speaking anonymously to more freely criticize his party’s strategy.
It has become clear that the party never had a plausible plan for success in voting rights. Congressional leaders, activists and outside groups have mostly been phased in trying to unite Democrats around a sweeping legislative package, then rushed into a filibuster. The hope was, apparently, that persuasion or pressure would induce Manchin and Sinema to abolish or weaken the filibuster, even though they had repeatedly sworn they would not.
From the start, some Democrats have been quietly skeptical for both tactical and substantive reasons, as I wrote about last year. They argued that the likely impact of the bills to “save democracy” was exaggerated and that their chances of success were much lower than leaders admitted. An adviser to a prominent Democratic donor feared discussions on the subject were becoming “exercises in unreality,” according to an email obtained by Politico.
President Biden’s White House has at times appeared to side with the skeptics: He has kept his distance from the voting rights push for much of 2021, giving the occasional speech or statement but not making one. top priority over the Build Back Better Act, which seemed to have a better chance of success. But activists intensely criticized Biden for his inaction, then Build Back Better stalled, so he finally committed to the ballot campaign this month – with no effect on Manchin or Sinema.
Barring a surprise U-turn, Democrats will head into midterms after failing to pass the bills they have touted as so urgent. It’s a big mess. Of course, the failure of a strategy does not mean that there was a better option. Still, it’s natural to wonder if some roads haven’t been trodden — and if the alliance of congressional leaders and outside groups leading this effort has headed into a ditch.
How the Democrats Got Here
The weirdness started early last year. Donald Trump had just made an unprecedented effort to overturn the presidential election results, leading to chaos and violence on Capitol Hill on January 6. Then, Republican-led state legislatures began enacting voting restrictions. The moment, it seemed, demanded an answer.
The Democratic leaders of Congress therefore introduced a bill: the For the People Act. It was a “mega-bill” containing dozens of proposals that good government reformers had backed for years, on topics ranging from voting accessibility standards to redistricting reform to funding for small donor campaigns. There was no hope of garnering Republican support for this bill, as it was designed as a kind of Democratic wish list and, in its initial version, did not really deal with Trump’s schemes to steal the election. .
Then there was the issue of its passage – 60 votes would be needed to pass the Senate filibuster. That could be circumvented if Democrats forced through a rule change with just a majority. But in January 2021, both Manchin and Sinema publicly pledged to maintain the filibuster.
Yet congressional Democratic leaders and their allies have gone ahead with an apparent two-part plan: first, to call the bill essential to saving democracy, and second, to pressure or persuade Manchin, Sinema and other moderates. to change the rules of the Senate, so that the bill could pass.
Some details changed over the following year. The For the People Act was replaced by a combo of two bills, the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. Some provisions have been dropped and others, including some related to electoral subversion, have been added. But the basic strategy has remained the same: roll out a sweeping legislative package overhauling many aspects of elections and voting without Republican support, and hope that Manchin and Sinema hide behind the cause of stonewalling reform. systematic.
Spoiler: They didn’t.
Why did the party take this path? The Democratic campaign professional told me he observed a “lawyer versus practitioner dichotomy.” He believes the strategy for the big bill was crafted by lawyers from the party and allied nonprofit groups, such as the Brennan Center for Justice, who had high ambitions to revise the law but lacked expertise of campaign professionals on the most likely policy changes. to impact election results and lawmakers’ know-how on how to get a bill passed through Congress.
In this interpretation of events, these lawyers have come to the attention of influential donors and donor-funded activist groups. To keep those constituencies happy, congressional leaders adopted the strategy of the lawyers to push these high-profile mega-bills — and the White House, after some initial reluctance, followed suit. (Teddy Schleifer reported on the donors behind the voting rights effort to Puck News.)
Another theory floating around is that the whole effort was a bit of a sham, or at least a performance, from the perspective of Democratic leaders. In this interpretation, top Democrats knew all along that they could never get anything through because of the filibuster. So they crafted a “bill” aimed at making their interest groups and some key donors happy, but which they never thought or wanted would become law. The goal was to prove to activists and grassroots that they were “fighting” for the cause of suffrage, even though they knew they would lose.
Was there another option?
All of this might seem like an over-advised assumption. A more generous interpretation is that Democratic leaders and advocates knew the strategy’s chances of success were slim, but they thought it was worth it anyway, and they didn’t think alternative strategies would be more likely to produce results. political changes that would protect democracy.
“It is an important time for the United States Senate to debate how to protect the right to vote and fair elections at a time when our democracy is under attack from the big lie of Donald Trump and those who would encourage him,” said Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center. said in a statement. “We are proud to be part of an extraordinary movement for racial justice, democracy, religion, labor and other groups in this fight. It is a broad democratic movement that our country has needed for a long time. Supporters of the effort also say they have plenty of campaign professionals and experts who agree with them on the importance of fighting voter suppression restrictions.
But there can be costs to failure. On the one hand, it may amount to losing a year – Manchin and Sinema’s support for the filibuster has been clear since January 2021, after all. Former Obama White House aide Dan Pfeiffer argued in a recent Substack that insiders privately knew failure was likely, but publicly claimed otherwise, setting the stage for disillusionment among supporters. vis-à-vis the Biden presidency as a whole. “Every Democrat — myself included — has done a miserable job of managing expectations and leveling up with our most loyal activists, volunteers, and donors,” Pfeiffer wrote.
Biden initially tried to manage expectations by prioritizing other issues. But that has led to another round of doubts from those who argue he should have gotten involved sooner. “When Biden fully entered the battle, the other warriors were already bloodied, bruised and exhausted,” writes Charles Blow of The New York Times.
Still, given Manchin’s drive to tank Build Back Better as well as voting rights bills, it seems unlikely that previous presidential pressures brought him and Sinema down. The president and the progressives have no influence over Manchin, who represents a deeply conservative state – indeed, they need him for everything they want to do.
Sinema is theoretically vulnerable to a left-wing primary, but she certainly isn’t acting like she believes it, and that election wouldn’t happen until 2024 anyway. For now, Biden is at their mercy, and a continued pressure on them may well backfire and make them more recalcitrant on other issues.
Another question is whether, in trying to pass their dream bill, the Democrats will have missed an opportunity to push through less sweeping but still important reforms. Washington is abuzz with news that some Republican senators want to start talks on reforming the Voter Count Act – the law Trump tried to use to get Congress and Vice President Pence to reject the victories of Biden in key states. Still, leading Democrats like Schumer have so far expressed skepticism of those efforts.
Whether a GOP reform offer is worth it depends on details, and it is possible that no agreement will be reached. But for the moment, the alternative seems to be to obtain no reform.
The unpleasant reality for Democrats is that they will only be able to pass the agenda they deem necessary if they manage to win more elections. Still, their prospects of doing so in 2022 look bleak, given Biden’s dismal approval numbers. There’s still a chance to make whatever bipartisan deals they can now and try to win more elections later. But the time of windmills is coming to an end.