The Democratic Party, and the country as a whole, are in a unique dilemma. Democrats, liberals, and even the center seem to have finally woken up to just how dangerously extreme the modern GOP is, with Republicans openly working around the country to suppress the vote and, if that fails, ensure they can overturn the result if it doesn’t go their way.
Democrats could theoretically head this off with the voting rights bills they have vowed to pass. But to do so, they’d have to first abolish or drastically reform the Senate filibuster, and that idea is opposed by two conservative senators: Kyrsten Sinema and, especially, West Virginia’s Joe Manchin.
Reportedly, President Joe Biden, who was sold to the electorate as the experienced insider and consummate dealmaker who could make Washington finally work, has no plan to induce Manchin to switch. In fact, despite pledging to “fight like heck with every tool at my disposal” to get the voting rights bill passed, Biden has instructed civil rights groups not to pressure Manchin in private meetings. This is because, according to the Atlantic’s Ronald Brownstein, and in line with the suspicions of frustrated voting rights groups, the White House doesn’t see that legislation as a priority. Rather, a senior official told Brownstein, they see the most viable path to defeating the GOP’s antidemocratic plans as passing Biden’s agenda in order to “win elections in 2022, so we keep control of the House and Senate.”
Yet that plan is also stalled for the same reason: Manchin refuses to back Biden’s infrastructure bill, demanding it have GOP buy-in. So, for weeks now, nothing has happened, as Biden engages in fruitless negotiations with Republicans who will never support his legislation, offering to cut more and more from the bill to get them on board, and jeopardizing what might very well be the last chance to do anything meaningful on climate change for a long time, as well as undermining future economic recovery.
This is in line with what Brownstein’s White House source told him: that the agenda Biden’s team sees as key to letting the party hold on to Congress in 2022 is about “working to mitigate political conflict and compromising with Republicans.” Unfortunately, you’d be hard-pressed to find a Democratic voter or party activist who shares this interpretation of the Democratic agenda they voted for, as even hard-core partisans are admitting.
So, much like Obama’s agenda twelve years ago, Biden’s is stuck thanks to obstinate congresspeople, and the ritual sacrificing of progressive priorities that results is all but certain to produce the same thing as last time: a midterm shellacking that leaves the country ungovernable for two more years and puts the GOP in the driver’s seat. But this scenario is even more alarming in the post-Trump world, with Republicans certain to not just further rig the rules in their favor but, at best, do nothing about the accelerating threat of climate change.
If only there was something, anything, that could be done to stop it — but there isn’t. That seems to be the attitude of Democratic officials, who have simply given up on passing their voting rights legislation.
Not An Option
As Jacobin’s Luke Savage has pointed out, this kind of fatalism is strange given the stakes. Democratic rhetoric, whether it’s from Biden, Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer, or Stacey Abrams, is lately replete with warnings of democracy under threat and impending authoritarianism. Yet despite controlling the White House and Congress, Democrats seem to feel all their options have been exhausted.
It’s a stark contrast to the GOP, which has responded to its electoral troubles with typical determined ruthlessness. But it’s also a change from years past, where, when something was a big enough priority, a president and a party have typically done everything possible to find the votes.
Think back to 2010 and the passage of the Affordable Care Act, which had been all but left for dead after a period of GOP time-wasting in which the Republicans used the same techniques they’re now employing on Biden. The bill was resuscitated at the last moment by President Obama and House speaker Nancy Pelosi, who were determined to ram it through. What followed was a full-court press from the White House (“He would do anything, he will call anyone, meet with anyone. He will speak anywhere. He will do whatever it takes,” Obama’s communications director later recalled) and Democratic leadership. Both Obama and Pelosi relentlessly lobbied reluctant members, with the speaker simply refusing to accept failure:
We will go through the gate. If the gate is closed, we will go over the fence. If the fence is too high, we will pole-vault in. If that doesn’t work, we will parachute in. But we are going to get health care reform passed.
In her initial quest for votes, Pelosi had done everything from adding provisions to making promises to take up specific members’ issues, to getting a former university president to pressure his local representative. True, to get the bill over the line, Obama had to resort to an executive order to restrict abortion funds, while Pelosi had to give up on the public option. But, all things considered, she was relatively uncompromising, refusing to break the bill into parts as some White House advisors wanted.
As Gary Andres, then a lobbyist and later a top Republican staffer, explained at the time, a range of options was available to the president for the vote-whipping operation: promises to help members fundraise, spending earmarks, recruiting interest groups to step up pressure, and offers of committee assignments (and threats of punishment).
“The White House has its own ‘candy store’ it can bestow on lawmakers’ districts or by making other policy changes through the power of the executive branch,” he wrote then.
After all, the stakes were high: with health care stalled and no other major legislative achievements, Obama openly warned his entire presidency hinged on the effort.
Pelosi didn’t always do this for progressive ends. When, in the wake of the Edward Snowden leaks in 2013, reining in the NSA’s mass-surveillance program became a top priority for both the US public and Congress, Obama worked furiously with the agency’s director to peel votes away from the effort. Key was Pelosi, who “aggressively lobbied wayward Democrats to torpedo the amendment,” and whose efforts had “a much bigger effect on swing Democratic votes against the amendment than anything [the director] had to say,” a committee aide told Foreign Policy at the time. The bill went down by a narrow 205-217 vote.
Pelosi had been just one of the players years earlier in 2008, when both Democratic and Republican leaderships worked overtime to get that year’s hated bank bailout over the line. After failing in September after a weekend of negotiations, party leadership launched a flurry of lobbying while adding sweeteners: a few extra provisions around tax incentives and disaster aid, and a promise from then-candidate Obama to black lawmakers that he would back foreclosure relief legislation (a promise he swiftly broke). Needing twelve House members to switch, they managed fifty-eight instead — thirty-three Democrats and twenty-five Republicans.
It’s instructive to look at Lyndon Johnson, the master Senate legislator to whom Biden has been repeatedly likened by pundits. Johnson, who refused to water down civil rights legislation in the face of a wall of Southern obstruction and a mountain of procedural obstacles, was no doubt a singular figure, famously able to harangue and flatter lawmakers into voting his way. But he was also willing to dispense with tradition and procedure and play hardball, when the time called for it, to aggressively push his priorities.
As recounted in Robert Caro’s The Passage of Power, upon ascending to the presidency and finding long odds for civil rights, tied up as they were in the Rules Committee, he took a rarely used measure that, in the New York Times’ words, “offends traditionalists”: launching a discharge petition in the House to wrench control of the bill from the committee and send it to the floor. Johnson didn’t even have to get a majority of the House to sign: once the number of signatures got close, the chairman, wanting to avoid embarrassment, did it himself voluntarily.
Modern Democrats know how to play hardball, too, to whip their own members, as they did to progressives in 2009. Five months into his presidency, Obama sidestepped his promises to leave Iraq and Afghanistan and requested more funding to escalate US involvement in the latter, hitting a wall of dozens of antiwar House Democrats. In many ways, the holdouts had the advantage, with public opinion heavily on their side.
They were soon met with a wave of lobbying from both Democratic leadership and various White House officials to get them to flip. One House member, Lynn Woolsey, charged that the White House went so far as to threaten freshmen they’d leave them hanging come reelection if they didn’t vote the president’s way. “We’re not going to help you. You’ll never hear from us again,” she recounted them saying at the time. It was enough to peel off nineteen votes, and the measure passed.
On Friday, I asked Woolsey, who represented a central California district for twenty years and played a key role in forcing the first vote on ending the war in Iraq, whether she thinks a similar threat could be made to push someone like Manchin now.
“Isn’t that what politics is all about — give and take?” she says. “I mean, what good is Manchin to the Democratic Party if he only votes with Republicans? It’s common sense, I think. Personally, I think he’s being given too much room already.”
Woolsey says she has faith in Biden’s efforts to restore the country post-Trump. She believes he first needs to know he did as much as reasonably possible to get GOP support for his program before moving forward on a partisan basis. She notes that Biden may be applying pressure behind the scenes, but confesses some frustration that more apparently isn’t being done, pointing to Trump’s continued ability to push Republicans while no longer even in politics.
“And what are the Democrats doing to Manchin? Nothing,” she says.
One point of leverage could be the West Virginian governor’s mansion. According to the Intercept’s Ryan Grim, Manchin still longs for the office he held in 2005–2010 and considered running for it in 2020. Could the very possible prospect of losing a small but significant and disgruntled slice of the state’s Democratic vote for his gubernatorial bid be enough to force Manchin’s hand?
It’s true that the problem runs deeper than Manchin, who is being used as a human shield by other Democrats unwilling to take the heat he’s getting. Yet their very reluctance to withstand that kind of pressure suggests that flipping Manchin could prove to be the proverbial levee whose breach brings the party’s Senate members on board.
Perhaps such moves are already in the works and everyone involved is playing their cards close to their chest. But, if not, it will be difficult for voters to swallow the idea that the Democrats were simply unable to flip a far smaller number of members than they’ve managed to in times past when their agenda hinged on it. The stakes have never been higher.