WBETTER HAT way to pursue a humiliating setback and a waste of political capital than with another? That seemed to be President Joe Biden’s strategy after the failure of his climate change and social policy bill last month. The White House and Democratic leaders in Congress pivoted to campaign for a voting rights package that had no chance of passing. On January 19, the Senate majority blocked the bill, as expected. Unsurprisingly, too, most senators did not agree to limit filibuster.
As a matter of politics, everything can seem disappointing. But on a policy level, the legislation, which Democrats described as essential to preventing a democratic catastrophe, was not designed to deal with the real threats to the country.
When one party has unified control of the government, as the Democrats now do, the gridlock should be surmountable. But filibuster, which requires a supermajority of 60 votes to do most business in the Senate, limits what can be done. An unrelenting Republican minority (and some dissident Democrats) can block the party’s agenda.
It was never clear how the voting rights package would escape these realities. The ten Republican votes needed to overcome a filibuster were never in sight. Nor did it take unanimous support from Democrats to change the rules governing simple majority filibuster. Biden seemed to hope that the stridency alone would be enough to unlock the bill. On January 11 he gave a speech in Atlanta grimly warning of a Republican plot to “turn the will of the voters into a mere suggestion.”
It is true that Republicans across the country are attacking democratic norms. They have embraced Donald Trump’s lie that they stole the last presidential election. State legislatures have tightened photo ID and postal voting rules, which Democrats fear will stifle the minority voters the party relies on. The most worrying thing is that the Republicans are playing with electoral mechanics, such as vote certification. Legions of enthusiasts for Trump’s “Lost Cause” movement are now running to be the top election officials in the states.
In an endorsement video released in the Pennsylvania election supervisor race, the former president proudly said, “We have to be much more precise next time when it comes to counting the votes… votes is more important than the candidate.
However, the solution proposed by the Democrats, which would have imposed minimum federal standards on the hodgepodge of state voting rules, was not in focus. Two bills had been combined to form his voting rights plan. One aimed to reinstate requirements for states with a history of discriminatory laws to seek Justice Department approval for any changes to their voting procedures. The other had some laudable goals, such as establishing a minimum number of early voting days and eliminating gerrymandering, but devoted much of its attention to campaign finance reform.
However, fears of significant voter suppression may be overblown. Black turnout is still pretty high. When Barack Obama was at the top of the list in 2012, he even outperformed whites. Some cite the widening black-white gap in 2016 and 2020 as evidence of a crackdown, yet there appears to have been no change in the racial turnout gap for the midterm elections (which is expected to be even more pronounced). since they generate less enthusiasm). than presidential races).
When Enrico Cantoni and Vincent Pons, two economists, examined all votersID laws enacted between 2008 and 2018 and their effect on participation, found that “the laws do not have a negative effect on registration or participation, overall or for any group defined by race, gender, age, or party affiliation.” There is still an argument for federal prophylaxis. The Republicans are simply trying to create a voting regime that will skew in their favor, they just haven’t found one that works that well yet.
As with other culture war issues in the United States, the parties have little capacity for self-examination on voting issues. Among Democrats, are you for “voting rights” or against democracy? An inconvenient truth, however, is that the overwhelming majority of Americans, including most African-Americans and Hispanics, think about photography.ID must be required to vote. Among Republicans, either you are for “electoral integrity” and Mr. Trump, or you risk being excommunicated from the party. That is despite a complete lack of evidence of voter fraud.
Biden’s legislative stunts seem to have won as little goodwill among party activists, who still blame him for focusing on economic stimulus over voting rights for months. Hours before being voted out of the Senate, in apparent anticipation of failure, Biden could only vaguely offer the assurance that “we’re not out of options yet.”
There is little chance of change. This is illustrated by a recent visit by Mr. Biden to Capitol Hill to make his case to Senate Democrats. Before her arrival, Kyrsten Sinema, a Democratic senator from Arizona, reiterated her opposition to removing filibuster, in essence removing the purpose of the outing. While there, Biden went to the office of Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, intending to deal with him directly. He discovered that there was no one there to negotiate with. ■
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This article appeared in the US section of the print edition under the headline “One mistake after another.”