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Are we going to let Joe Manchin sink democracy?
We can't afford to, so don't even think about giving up
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I was set to write a piece on Pride month.
It was going to focus on how I’d taken the annual June LGBTQ celebration for granted before the Trump years — and certainly criticized it for becoming increasingly commercialized and corporatized — but how much I appreciated it now, during the post-Trump Biden presidency.
We have a president who not only recognizes Pride and LGBTQ rights; he undid by executive order Trump’s most dangerous rollbacks on rights for LGBTQ people, which Trump had put in place via executive order. And Biden did it with lightning speed, while continuing to promote the much bigger protections — like the Equality Act — which must pass Congress.
But this new Biden era, I realize, could just be a reprieve, a short little dream before a new and even more ominous time — yes, more terrible than the four-year nightmare of Donald Trump’s presidency — which could be upon us in a matter of two to three years.
That became more starkly clear over the weekend when Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia published an op-ed stating he will not vote for H.R. 1, the For the People Act, and the only federal legislation that, if passed, will stop the voter suppression laws and other outrageous election restrictions that the GOP, led by Trump loyalists promoting the Big Lie, have been passing in dozens of states.
As many scholars, election experts, progressive activists, commentators and Democratic leaders have noted, without key provisions in H.R. 1 we could see the end of democracy as we know it.
Because if the GOP gets power again, with a Trump-led movement, all bets are off.
The GOP only needs a few seats to take control of the House and the Senate in ‘22, and voter suppression could be the ticket. But the laws they are passing are worse than simply keeping people from having access to vote. They also take power away from secretaries of state, give more power to local election boards where Trump loyalists have been installed and allow judges to more easily overturn elections.
It’s not hard to foresee a 2024 presidential election that isn’t even that tight but which Republicans manage to steal for the GOP candidate by overturning state elections and “winning” the Electoral College even if the candidate loses the popular vote. Read Timothy Snyder’s “How an American nightmare becomes real.”
Time to turn up the heat
So what do we do?
There was a lot of despair on social media over the weekend, and certainly great concern is warranted.
But we don’t give up, not that easily.
Let’s realize first that Joe Manchin wasn’t the only problem. While Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona is a co-sponsor of H.R. 1 she has in recent days doubled-down on not ending or limiting the filibuster — and H.R. 1 and most other legislation won’t get passed without reforming the filibuster.
And, actually, there are other, more quiet Democratic senators who both hadn’t committed to ending the filibuster (Senators Maggie Hassan, Jeanne Shaheen and Jon Tester are a few), and others who haven’t been fully on board with H.R 1.
It’s probably true that if Manchin and Sinema both did the right thing the pressure would raise exponentially on those other senators and they’d cave.
But it’s also true that Manchin and Sinema know it’s not the entire caucus that they’re bucking right now, and that they’re getting secret support from senators for whom they’re giving welcome cover. So it works both ways. Bottom line: There’s not enough pressure from the Democrats, including the leadership and the White House, that we can really discern on these two vocal and obstructionist Democratic senators.
We need to turn up the heat right now on Democratic leadership and on the White House. When President Obama and some Democrats slow-walked “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal, LGBT activists, looking ahead to the GOP likely taking control of the Senate, staged protests beginning in 2009 and well into 2010. They chained themselves to the White House fence, and took the stage while Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid spoke at the annual Netroots Nation convention. There was protest after protest, while no one really knew how many Democrats in the Senate wold commit to repeal.
But a promise was made to voters, and the leaders had to get it done — and, with pressure, they did. The same thing happened later on moving the president to support marriage equality. Immigration activists also staged protests and calling and email drives demanding promises be fulfilled. And Obama, in 2012, after Senate action stalled, issued an order protecting the Dreamers.
In retrospect, we haven’t even begun to fight when it comes to putting pressure on Democrats to get these priorities secured. Someone or some entity — maybe the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the business-friendly conservative lobbying group — got to Manchin. Or maybe he got scared of the Koch campaign launched against him and other Democrats. Or it could be any of the reasons flying around social media.
Only weeks ago Manchin was promoting the idea of bringing back the “talking filibuster,” expressing, along with Biden, that something had to be done. Now he’s totally against any reform of the filibuster at all. Whatever happened, pressure now needs to be brought to bear from the other direction, from top Democrats — and we’ve not really seen evidence of that.
Vote and vote and vote again
Democratic leaders must also put Manchin, Sinema and the GOP on the spot over and over again by taking as many votes as possible, forcing the GOP and the conservadems to deal with increasing pressure as the filibuster keeps being used — and again, we need to pressure Democratic leaders to take these votes. As The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank suggested, the For the People Act should be broken down into its many components, and every measure within it voted on separately.
After the For the People Act fails, the Senate should bring up its popular and unobjectionable provisions, one at a time. If by some miracle Manchin succeeds in getting Republicans to support their passage, all the better. In the likely event he fails, it will be obvious to America, and hopefully to him, that Republicans have no interest in cooperation.
Democrats could begin by forcing Republicans to vote on the provision to restore enforcement of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, gutted by the Supreme Court’s conservative majority in 2013. “Inaction is not an option,” Manchin, joined by Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) wrote to congressional leaders last month about such a bill. Will Republicans filibuster this?
Put up a stand-alone bill on backing all votes in elections with paper ballots — which is one component of H.R. 1 — and make Republicans filibuster that. A stand-alone on dark money. A stand alone on those who plant false information about polling sites. On and on and on. Make them vote. And, as Milbank urges, bring to a vote H.R. 4, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which Manchin claims he does support, and which addresses reauthorization of pre-clearance provisions in the states. Make Manchin get his supposed 10 Republicans aboard. And when they filibuster that too, the pressure rises exponentially.
Democrats must be pushed to fight, and that also means ramping up investigations as Trump is now going back out on a speaking tour. Where are all the many investigations into January 6th, and why aren’t Trump officials and the GOP House members who help organize the “Stop the Steal” rally being held accountable? Investigations of the Trump coronavirus pandemic response? The Trump Justice Department abuses? I could go on and on.
The Democrats should be on the offensive — and letting the base of the party know they’re fighting — instead of appearing like they’re in retreat and the GOP is in control. And we need to make them do it. The GOP, Mitch McConnell in particular, needs to be afraid of what Democrats may do — and sadly that is not the case right now.
Grass roots action for ‘22 and beyond
Whatever happens regarding the leadership, the grass roots has to triple down for the 2022 election. Everyone needs to support local groups, particularly in states with new voting restrictions, to help educate people about the laws and about how to vote and get around the suppression. This won’t easy, and nobody should downplay it. But we’ve beaten back the GOP’s suppression tactics in the past by educating people and going door to door. And we also overcame the gerrymandering — such as in 2018, winning over 40 seats in the House when most experts didn’t think Democrats would win back the House or thought maybe they’d just win by a few seats.
Getting people turned out, as we have done in the last two elections, is vital. The future of democracy is on the line. I know we said that in 2018, and then again in 2020. But we have to say it again in 2022 (and in 2024).
One thing on our side is that Trump rarely helps Republicans when he’s not on the ballot. And the conventional wisdom that the party in power in the White House loses seats in the mid-terms is just that — conventional wisdom, all of which has been out the window in recent years. There’s never before been a twice-impeached one-term loser president who incited an insurrection as the leader of the party out of power, threatening democracy. Democrats, running against Trump’s dangerous movement, could keep control of the House and gain seats — beating the gerrymander again, and the voter suppression — and keep the Senate. It’s all about organizing and fighting like hell.
In these horrendous times no one election is going to make everything all better, and we were naive to think that 2020 could do that. This fascistic Trumpian movement that emboldens domestic terrorists has a firm grasp on the Republican Party. It will take several cycles — and lots of soul-searching about what we did wrong, as well as lots of fortitude and enhancing of what we do right — to beat it back.
And we must beat it back, because the future of democracy depends on it.
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