Every member of every legislative branch from city councils to state houses to Congress has to confront a basic challenge of governance: Sometimes you vote to go along, sometimes to get along, and sometimes you vote your gut. The get-along votes are often party calls. You back your political leadership on core issues. The go-alongs reflect the basic views of your constituents. Your district opposes higher taxes? That should be your default position, too.
But then there are those moments of truth when democracy calls for a higher purpose, for elected officials to do the right thing, even when it’s inconvenient, even when it doesn’t make you popular with your peers or your supporters. It is this ultimate test of leadership that Joe Manchin has so miserably failed.
The U.S. senator from Farmington, West Virginia, made two especially poorly timed pronouncements this past weekend that not only sabotaged his fellow Democrats, including President Joe Biden (and for which he is unlikely to pay any real political price, incidentally), but seriously hampered efforts to protect voting rights. In an op-ed published in the Charleston Gazette-Mail, he dismissed the election reforms of Maryland Rep. John Sarbanes’ “For the People Act” as partisan and thus unworthy of his crucial support. Further, he declared that he will not agree to weaken or eliminate the Senate filibuster rule, which likely means that any other further attempts to thwart the wave of voter suppression laws sweeping through this country’s GOP-controlled states is doomed to failure, too.
And for all this, Senator Manchin seems to regard himself not as spineless or a contemptible enabler of Republican attacks on the voting franchise but as a stalwart believer in the Senate, in bipartisan negotiation and in the legislative process. What a lot of hogwash.
First, let’s acknowledge that Manchin is in a peculiar political spot as essentially his party’s 50th vote in the Senate (although Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema could lay claim to the title, too, but is less apt to grandstand). He was first elected to public office in the 1980s when his state was Democratic-leaning; today it is quite the opposite having voted to reelect Donald Trump president by a 2-to-1 margin just months ago. He walks a political tightrope as a moderate-to-conservative Democrat.
Yet by dismissing his party’s valiant effort at election reform — which seeks not only to halt efforts to keep Democratic supporters, particularly people of color, from casting their ballots in future contests, but to restore greater ethics and accountability to government as no more than a partisan enterprise — he plays right into Republicans’ soiled hands. At least 14 states have this year enacted voter suppression laws promulgated on the “Big Lie” that the last election was “stolen” from Donald Trump through some mysterious means known only to wild-eyed conspiracy theorists. More such attacks on voting rights are likely coming. Some restrictions act in fairly subtle manner (purging voter registration rolls more often or taking away ballot drop-boxes) while others are just plain, Jim Crow obvious, as when you reduce voting hours and locations that make it difficult for certain individuals living in certain neighborhoods to get to the polls (Hint: We’re not talking about middle-class-and-above white people).
The vast majority of Republicans have either backed these efforts or at least not raised a hand in objection. Under such circumstances, it is not partisanship to oppose this attack on fundamental rights, it is a moral obligation. It is one thing to quibble over details, it is another to refuse them all — or, as Senator Manchin has done, suggest he might endorse greater Justice Department supervision of states with poor voting rights records under the “John Lewis Voting Rights Act” but not give his fellow Democrats the ability to pass such a bill in the Senate, where only one Republican has expressed support.
The filibuster rule has caused the Senate, this great, august body that Manchin claims to believe in, to become largely irrelevant in the 21st century. Even in the 1939 film, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” the fictional senator played by Jimmy Stewart had to actually hold the floor. Under current rules, the minority need only indicate an intention to filibuster and that’s that. Preserving this nonsense is either naiveté beyond Frank Capra’s imaginings, denial of reality or just a backdoor effort to subvert needed good government reforms (such as For the People Act’s provision providing matching funds for small campaign donors thus decreasing the overwhelming clout of deep-pocketed special interests).
There’s a lot of misinformation swirling around election reform — that it’s an effort to “federalize” elections, enable voter fraud or, most common of all, that it represents a power grab by Democrats. None of that is true. Senator Manchin surely knows this, too, but has made the political calculation that it’s in his best interest to take the easy road. How sad. How pitiful. How Manchin.
Peter Jensen is an editorial writer at The Baltimore Sun.