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The fatal flaw(s) in Manchin's case against the For the People Act

Joe Manchin is prepared to be remembered by history as the senator who did little more than hope as his country's democracy unraveled.

About a week ago, more than 100 American scholars who specialize in democracy studies unveiled a joint public statement warning that the United States' system of government is "now at risk." As part of their efforts, the scholars, many of whom have devoted much of their lives to studying the breakdowns in democracies abroad, pleaded with lawmakers to act.

"We urge members of Congress to do whatever is necessary — including suspending the filibuster — in order to pass national voting and election administration standards," the experts wrote, apparently referring to the standards Democrats hope to establish in the pending For the People Act legislation.

One of the signatories was Harvard's Daniel Ziblatt, co-author of How Democracies Die, who told The New Yorker's Susan Glasser that threats against the U.S. democracy "are much worse than we expected" when he and Steven Levitsky first wrote the book in 2018. Ziblatt added that current conditions are "much more worrisome."

It was against this backdrop that President Biden delivered Memorial Day remarks last week describing democracy as the "soul of America" that all of us must fight to protect. The president soon after called for June to be "a month of action on Capitol Hill," specifically on the issue of voting rights. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) told members that they should prepared to vote this month on the For the People Act, which he said is "essential to defending our democracy."

Yesterday, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) announced that his party's top legislative priority would die by his hand.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said Sunday that he will not vote for S.1, known as the For The People Act, the massive elections and ethics reform package Democrats have proposed. The announcement immediately imperils the bill, which is universally opposed by Republicans and would require elimination of the Senate filibuster to be passed. The legislation was passed in the House this year.

In an op-ed in the Charleston Gazette-Mail, the conservative Democrat didn't identify any substantive problems with the legislation, other than to denounce the bill as "partisan."

The superficiality of the indictment was jarring: Manchin would have the public believe that any important proposal that Republicans don't like is by definition "partisan," which in turn renders the bill unacceptable, regardless of merit. It's a governing model that says the majority party must give the minority party veto power over efforts to shield our system of government, even as that party takes a sledgehammer to democracy in states nationwide.

The West Virginian appeared on Fox News yesterday morning and added, in reference to his Senate Republican colleagues, "I'm just hoping they are able to rise to the occasion to defend our country and support our country and make sure that we have a democracy for this republic of all the people." In the same interview, the conservative Democrat went on to say, "I’m going to continue to keep working with my bipartisan friends and hopefully we can get more of them."

Note the repetitious use of the word "hope." Manchin, after already having seen GOP senators discredit his preferred approach to legislating, is "just hoping" that the party actively opposed to voting rights changes its mind.

The plan is not to have the majority party govern to preserve democracy; rather, the plan is to hope that Republican opponents of democracy see the light before it's too late. What could possibly go wrong?

In a word, everything.

The disconnect between the seriousness of the threat and Manchin's aspirational longing is jarring because the scope and scale of the Republican Party's campaign is so severe. As part of the most aggressive attacks against our democracy in generations, GOP officials are placing indefensible hurdles between Americans and ballot boxes through voter-suppression measures. At the same time, the party is hijacking election administration systems. And actively undermining public confidence in election results. And positioning far-right, anti-election ideologues to serve as Secretaries of State, whose offices oversee elections. And targeting poll workers. And exploring ways to make it more difficult for Americans to turn to the courts in the hopes of protecting voting rights. And intensifying voter-roll purges. And empowering heavy-handed poll watchers. And preparing to exploit gerrymandering to create voter-proof majorities.

And laying the groundwork to allow officials to overturn election results Republicans don't like.

The New York Times' Michelle Goldberg wrote last week, "This gap between the scale of the catastrophe bearing down on us and the blithe refusal of [Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema] to help is enough to leave one frozen with despair."

It's easy to relate to the sentiment. We're watching one of the nation's major political parties incrementally chip away at our system, with the explicit goal of giving its members political power whether they earn it at the ballot box or not. Much of that same party is moving quickly away from the idea that Americans resolve political disputes through free and fair elections.

We're simultaneously watching one senator hope that opponents of voting rights magically decide to strengthen voting rights. If he's mistaken, the ability of Americans to vote will suffer -- and that's a price that senator is prepared to pay.

Americans can be thankful such thinking didn't prevail when Congress passed the Voting Rights Act 1965 -- over the objections of segregationists -- or in 1869, when Congress approved the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, indifferent to its "partisan" nature.

The first paragraph of Manchin's op-ed yesterday began, "The right to vote is fundamental to our American democracy and protecting that right should not be about party or politics. Least of all, protecting this right, which is a value I share, should never be done in a partisan manner."

The senator seems oddly unaware of the irony: Republicans are acting in a partisan manner to gut voting rights, which Manchin believes is bad for democracy. Manchin has the power to prevent this from happening, but he doesn't want to use it -- because it might require him to act in a partisan manner, even if that's good for democracy.

In fairness, it's worth emphasizing that the conservative Democrat continues to support the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, and Manchin appears to have secured Sen. Lisa Murkowski's (R-Alaska) backing for the legislation. There is no reason to believe the West Virginian stands with many Republicans in active opposition to voting rights.

But as a practical matter, the end result is unavoidable: the odds of finding nine more Senate Republicans willing to support the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act are roughly zero, and Manchin continues to rule out the possibility of restoring the chamber to a majority-rule institution. That means, of course, that this bill will inevitably die, and our democracy will continue to grow weaker with each new GOP attack.

The scholars of democracy concluded last week, "History will judge what we do at this moment." Joe Manchin is prepared to be remembered by history as the senator who did little more than hope as his country's democracy unraveled.

It's unlikely that history's judgment will be kind.