How Democrats Fumbled the Voting Rights Debate

Instead of highlighting GOP obstruction, the vote on S.1 devolved into a discussion of Democratic dissension

The Republicans waged war on democracy. Democrats responded with a whimper.

I hate being a Monday morning quarterback who hollers from the peanut gallery about the failures of those in the arena. I have been on the inside, and it’s always more complicated than cocksure Twitter strategists and professional pundits on the outside assume. I have a visceral reaction to the folks who seek out RTs by yelling about how Democrats need to “do better” and “fight harder.”

But still, it’s difficult to look at the run-up to yesterday’s vote on the most critical piece of legislation in a decade and not think that Democrats need to “do better” and “fight harder” — or at least “fight smarter.”

Every Democrat from the Senate to the White House touted the For the People Act as an absolutely essential response to Republican attempts to rig our elections, circumscribe democracy, and institute “Jim Crow in the 21st Century.” Yet all the Party could muster was a poorly planned, unchoreographed, failure of a procedural vote on Tuesday.

Maybe it was always going to be this way. No matter what Biden, Schumer, and the rest of us did, Manchin and Sinema were never going to change their mind on the filibuster on such a short timeline. But it’s impossible to look at how the last few months have played out and conclude that there was any strategy to maximize the limited chances of success or raise the political salience of the issue. The tremendous sense of urgency felt by the base was simply not shared by the Senate leadership or the White House. It’s possible this isn’t really the end of the road. Victory could still escape the jaws of defeat.

Screaming and tweeting about the failures to date would be cathartic, but it wouldn’t be constructive. Therefore, it’s worth taking a look at how we arrived at the precipice of disaster. To see what errors were made and what —if anything— can be done about them for this fight and the ones to come.

Was there a Plan?

Republicans were never going to support the For the People Act or the much narrower John Lewis Voting Rights Act. Manchin’s compromise was never going to get a single Republican vote. The Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013. In the ensuing nine years, no Republican made a real effort to strengthen it. Republicans will never help voting rights because their political power depends on disenfranchising millions of Americans. The Senate version of the For the People Act has had 49 Democratic co-sponsors for months. Joe Manchin refused to support it.

Unlike the American Rescue Plan, the American Jobs Plan, or a bipartisan infrastructure package, the For the People Act was subject to a Republican filibuster.

Therefore, the passage required two things: compromising with Joe Manchin to bring him on board and convincing a group of reticent, obstinate Senators to change their minds on the filibuster.

It’s now abundantly clear there was never a plan to do either. In fairness, Manchin was incredibly vague about the reasons for his opposition to the bill for a very long time. His only public comments were meaningless bromides about bipartisanship. Democratic Senators reportedly pressed him for more specifics. Until the other day, he offered nothing. But in the end, he suggested a reasonable, if unsatisfying, compromise that received the support of Stacey Abrams and Barack Obama. Yet, the party was unable to coalesce around it and offer a unified front. The night before the vote, Democratic Senators were still openly debating strategy and discussing breaking the bill up into pieces — something that had been suggested weeks before. With just hours to go, there was still confusion about which version of the bill would be voted on. It is truly impossible to imagine why these problems were not anticipated and addressed long before the vote was scheduled.

The millions of activists that had been texting and calling in support of voting rights had nothing to rally around.

At the last minute, Manchin agreed to support the procedural vote, but the damage had been done. The focus of the press coverage was on Democratic ineptitude, not Republican obstruction.

There has been to date no sustained internal effort to move Manchin, Sinema et al. on the filibuster. The lack of a plan is summarized by this Al Sharpton quote to Politico:

The pressure that we are going to put on Sinema and Manchin is calling [the filibuster] racist and saying that they are, in effect, supporting racism. Why would they be wedded to something that has those results? Their voters need to know that.

Sharpton is correct in the sense that the filibuster is a relic of the Jim Crow Era and is being used to enable Republican policies that target the political power, health, and well-being of voters of color. But calling Sinema and Manchin racist is not a strategy likely to change their minds. In fact, it’s not a strategy at all.

The impediments to progress were manifest from the very beginning. They were dismissed and ignored. I would like to believe that there was a well-thought-out plan being executed behind the scenes with the utmost secrecy, but I can see absolutely no evidence that such a plan existed.

Expectations Mismanagement

Whenever an interviewer or an activist pushed Senate Majority Leader Schumer on how he was going to pass a voting rights bill, he replied confidently that “failure was not an option.”

This statement led many to believe that the odds of success, while unlikely, were greater than most of the political prognosticators predicted. Schumer’s confidence led the grassroots activists that helped deliver the Senate majority to dig in and keep fighting. We assumed, naively, that Schumer’s confidence was based on private conversations with his colleagues that offered a potential path to success.

In hindsight, it seems Senate Democratic leaders were just trying to survive the next interview or meeting without inspiring the wrath of the base. This is an understandable impulse. No one wants to be the subject of Twitter’s fury, but it also made a bad situation much worse. By repeating what they thought people wanted to hear, Democratic leaders allowed expectations to get out of control. While it would have resulted in short-term upset, Democratic activists deserved to hear a more realistic appraisal of the odds at the outset. Raising hopes out of fear and convenience, and then dashing them, leads to anger. Asking your voters to donate, call, text, and fight for something you know is near impossible will only demobilize the base.

In the end, Schumer deserves credit for persuading Manchin on board and staving off a huge political embarrassment. However, Democrats failed to adhere to one of the cardinal rules of politics: treat your voters like adults.

Strategic Paralysis

Yesterday’s vote was always going to fail. Therefore, that failure should have been anticipated and planned for. The goal was to highlight Republican opposition and obstruction to draw a contrast between the parties and create a predicate for a real conversation about filibuster reform. Instead, the coverage and conversation were about Democratic dissension — a completely avoidable topic.

One of the roots of the problem is that Democratic Party leadership could never decide whether the For the People Act was a message vote or a solution to a very real problem. A message vote is a bill that is voted on in order to highlight an unpopular position from the other party. These votes are fodder for campaign ads. In those situations, the bill text is designed for maximum political impact, not for passage.

The basis of the For the People Act was H.R. 1 passing in 2019 with no chance of enactment under a Republican Senate with Trump in the White House. The 2021 version was not updated to reflect the changed circumstances: a 50-50 Senate and the new threat of election subversion. It’s not incumbent on the House to reverse engineer their legislation to appease Joe Manchin. However, the Senate leadership tried to sell the bill as is with no acknowledgment of its flaws or that it was DOA in the Senate.

Were the Democrats trying to send a message or pass a bill? They couldn’t decide, and no decision is always worse than a bad decision.

Is the White House Doing Enough?

Joe Biden has a lot on his plate. He is trying to control a pandemic, fix an economy, run a government, and he spent the last week on an international trip trying to repair the damage of four years of idiocy and insults on the world stage. But it’s fair to say that publicly the White House has been relatively absent from the fight to pass a voting rights act. As I wrote recently, there are very real limits to what a president can accomplish in situations like these. Based on how this has played out, it’s unlikely that any public presidential engagement would have altered the short-term dynamics. But we will never know because no such effort was mounted.

Vice President Harris was put in charge of the effort at the very last minute. It’s too soon to judge her efforts, but the timing of her appointment speaks to the larger issue.

On Tuesday, the White House pointed to behind-the-scenes efforts to persuade Senators. I would bet Biden, Harris, and the White House helped get Manchin on board with the procedural vote. But there is no question that the voting rights effort has been on the backburner compared to infrastructure.

I assume that the White House recognized early on that success on voting rights was unlikely and focused their efforts on passing a jobs bill. The economy is the most important issue to the voters that put Biden in the White House. The political calculation that delivering on a jobs plan and strengthening the economy is the best way to keep Biden’s approval rating up and increase the likelihood of Democratic success in 2022 is certainly logical. It’s not surprising this was Biden’s choice. The main divide in the Democratic primary wasn’t ideological; it was attitudinal. That election was a contest between those that believed the problem was Trump and those that believed Trump was the result of a larger assault on democracy. Biden confirmed explicitly that he was in the former group. He opposed filibuster elimination, Supreme Court expansion, and other structural reforms embraced by Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg, and others. Biden’s side won the debate handily. I fundamentally disagree with the substance, but the primary shows that the Biden side of the argument was correct on the politics.

I am sympathetic to the President’s team in the sense that every action in the White House is zero-sum. There are no do-overs or extra time. Everything comes at the cost of something else. However, you can’t compare the state voter suppression laws to Jim Crow and not mount a huge, public fight for the bill that would combat those laws. In my mind, the Biden White House has more than earned the benefit of the doubt, but going forward I hope the President makes the Republican threat to democracy a bigger part of his public message.

To be clear, the fight isn’t necessarily over. I hope this post is a premature obituary that people will repeatedly rub in my face on the day Biden signs a major voting rights bill into law.

There are several more turns of the wheel available to the Democrats. Jon Favreau, my Pod Save America co-host, offered a smart suggestion for Democrats’ next move:

The big question for Democratic leadership is whether they will move from voting rights or keep fighting. Will there be more votes? Will there be more of an effort to court Manchin and Sinema? Was this vote the beginning of the end or the end of the beginning?

After the vote failed, Vice President Harris’s office announced a series of upcoming actions:

In the coming days and weeks, the Vice President will engage with voting rights advocates and groups, business leaders and lawmakers. She will make the case publicly that voting is fundamental to our democracy, and that defending that fundamental right is the most important work we can do as a nation. The President and Vice President will continue to bring together a national coalition on voting rights, promote registration and engagement of voters across the country and work with leaders in the states who are working to stop bills aimed at undermining the right to vote.

Senator Schumer declared on the floor of the Senate that the fight will go on:

Make no mistake about it, it will not be the last time that voting rights comes up for a debate in the Senate.

This is progress. But there is a lot of work to do. Democrats owe it to the activists to fight harder and more strategically in the coming weeks. A better outcome from the next debate requires learning from the failures from this one. None of this is as easy as pundits and podcasters like to believe, but it’s fair to ask for better than what we are seeing now. If Democrats truly believe that democracy is on the line, they must act like it. If they don’t, stop using the threat to raise money and get attention.

In the end, success may not be in the cards. Manchin and Sinema may simply value the rights of Senators in the minority more than the voting rights of their own constituents. But, sometimes fighting and losing is preferable to not fighting at all.

This is one of those times.