Every once a year or so, there’s a monumental vote in the Senate on which some crucial aspect of democracy or human rights dangles. Because the Senate is a deeply broken institution that over-represents rural, white Republicans and requires a 60-vote threshold to do almost anything, votes that should be easy end up coming down to one or two “moderate” or “maverick” senators in either party who the nation desperately hopes will wake up one morning and decide to do the right thing.
That’s the thing about the Senate “moderates” — they are not driven by a passion for policy or for change.
Sometimes these senators pretend to be undecided. It’s a favorite move of Maine’s Republican senator, Susan Collins, to feign some deep “concern” for whatever is happening, claim up until the moment of her vote that she is still genuinely considering both sides, release nothing-burger statements that keep the public hanging on her every word — and then vote the wrong way.
Democrats thought she might block Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court, for instance, not only because of the credible sexual assault claim against him and his disturbing outburst during the Senate hearing but also because she claims to support abortion rights, and his confirmation is a dire threat to them. Of course, she let him sail right through.
In the case of Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., and the massive threat to American voting rights playing out now, the so-called moderates have made their intentions clear from the start — and liberals are still naively pinning their hopes on the two.
As more than a dozen states pass flagrant voter suppression laws that by design largely exclude Black people from voting and help Republicans win elections, Senate Democrats have a chance to pass federal voting rights legislation that will stop these efforts. But to pass that legislation and other progressive priorities, Democrats have to eliminate the filibuster.
Both Sinema and Manchin have said since the moment President Joe Biden was elected that they will not budge on the filibuster. Yet people were still shocked and angry Sunday when Manchin made it clear, yet again, that he is not interested in allowing his own party to legislate without “bipartisan” support. It's almost like if someone threatened to punch him in the face, and he didn’t want to be punched in the face, but because the two couldn’t come to a verbal compromise on the issue, he just stood there and allowed himself to be punched in the face.
This idea of the Senate “maverick” swooping in to save democracy has a lot to do with the late Arizona Republican John McCain.
This idea of the Senate “maverick” swooping in to save democracy has a lot to do with the late Arizona Republican John McCain, whose shocking thumbs-down vote on repealing the Affordable Care Act in 2017 thwarted his own party’s best effort to do that. McCain had previously expressed disdain for Obamacare, and people assumed he had some change of heart on the matter because of his brain cancer.
He and his aides later clarified that he didn’t actually want to save people’s health coverage; he was just angry that Republicans had tried to push the bill through without a hearing or any bipartisan input. “I was thanked for my vote by Democratic friends more profusely than I should have been for helping save Obamacare,” McCain wrote in his 2018 memoir. “That had not been my goal.”
That’s the thing about the Senate “moderates” — they are not driven by a passion for policy or for change. While the left wants climate change legislation, "Medicare for All," student loan forgiveness and raising the minimum wage, the right wants to crack down on immigration, ban abortion and keep corporate taxes low; the Manchin types in the middle primarily want to protect the institution of the Senate itself, to protect the status quo and to protect their own jobs. That means they will only vote for watered-down “bipartisan” bills that give them enough cover in the next election to win again in a purple state. Nothing else matters.
The irony in the particular drama unfolding now is that the issue at hand is democracy itself — the very ability of Democrats to win elections even when a majority of voters prefer their policies. States are passing bills that could ensure Republicans take back control of the Senate, despite the fact that the 50 Democratic senators represent over 41 million more Americans than the 50 Republican senators do.
Perhaps Manchin and Sinema will keep their jobs — Manchin, in particular, doesn’t personally rely on the same voter demographics the rest of the party does to keep winning — but they’ll have much less power in the minority. Still, they are so enamored with the myth of bipartisanship that they aren’t willing to do what needs to be done to save their own party.
Pundits will always point out that the Democrats wouldn’t have the razor-thin Senate majority at all if Manchin and Sinema weren’t able to win in West Virginia and Arizona. But Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly, who’s to the left of Sinema, also won in Arizona, and he is not playing the same games she is. He voted to raise the federal minimum wage when she gave it a thumbs-down. And he is more popular than she is in Arizona.
The reality is, Democrats have no choice. They can find a way to win 10 more Senate seats, successfully primary Sinema and Manchin from the left or somehow mount enough pressure on the moderate senators to make it politically untenable for them to hold out on the filibuster. But if they refuse to play hardball, they may never win an election again — because the “moderates” were never going to step in and save them.