In our two-party system, one of the parties appears to be in the process of abandoning democracy. By all current indications, that means any meaningful action to safeguard our system against the threat this poses will have to be undertaken by the other party — either largely or exclusively.

Such action, in other words, will likely take place on a partisan basis, or not at all. Will Democrats acknowledge that this dynamic is fundamental to this moment and embrace the responsibility it thrusts on them?

How this gets answered will turn heavily on how Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) answers it. And some important new reporting in the New York Times on deliberations among GOP senators about the Jan. 6 commission should clarify Manchin’s thinking.

Manchin is his party’s leading opponent of ending the filibuster, and a firm believer that any congressional action to protect democracy must have broad bipartisan support. Yet GOP senators appear prepared to filibuster the commission to examine the Jan. 6 insurrection.

What’s critical is the thinking of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on this. McConnell is rallying GOP opposition to the bill that the House passed creating the new commission.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on May 19 said that he will oppose legislation to create a commission to investigate the Jan. 6 Capitol attack. (U.S. Senate)

The Times reports that in a private meeting, McConnell “warned fellow Republican senators” that the proposed commission is “not as bipartisan as it appeared”:

He said he believed that Democrats had partisan motives in moving to set up the commission and would try to extend the investigation into 2022 and the midterm election season, tarnishing Republicans and complicating Mr. McConnell’s drive to return as majority leader.

This is not merely a declaration of opposition to the commission’s makeup. It’s also essentially a declaration of opposition to the very idea of having any serious accounting into the insurrection at all.

Even more to the point, this opposition is premised on the grounds that Republicans must only see an accounting through the purely partisan prism of what helps or hurts their midterm chances.

McConnell justifies this idea, of course, by insisting that Democrats intend to use the commission in partisan fashion against Republicans.

But the commission’s members would be evenly divided between the parties, and subpoenas would need support from at least one GOP member. It would have to issue its report by Dec. 31, 2021. Those are concessions to Republicans, addressing the very objections McConnell still claims to harbor.

It’s true that the Democratic-appointed chair would have some control over investigative direction and staffing decisions. And the focus would be on the insurrection and the causes and factors leading up to it.

But, if this is unacceptably partisan, it can only mean that for McConnell, a “bipartisan” commission must allow the GOP veto power over any and all investigative decisions, and water down its focus so it’s also about left-wing political violence.

Which means the only thing that would count for McConnell as a “bipartisan” commission is one that hamstrings the focus on the role of Donald Trump and Republicans in inciting the attack. Which is exactly what McConnell wants.

That’s because, as the Times report suggests, for McConnell, anything that does focus on those things must be a nonstarter because it will harm Republicans in the midterms. So where does this leave Manchin and his hopes for bipartisanship?

Manchin supports this commission as an act of patriotism. He still hopes 10 Republicans will as well. Manchin told Politico:

“I’m still praying we’ve still got 10 good solid patriots within that conference.”

Manchin is not wrong to hope for this. We do need pro-democracy Republicans. The small band of Republicans who resisted Trump’s effort to overturn the election was instrumental in stopping it. The few Republicans standing athwart the GOP’s abandonment of democracy are doing important work that we should encourage. If 10 GOP senators help make this commission a reality, such an outcome and its bipartisan buy-in would be worth supporting.

But what if they don’t? As of now, McConnell has made this plain: There can be no accounting into the effort to overturn our democracy through mob violence that’s both bipartisan and also a full and true accounting. If Republicans sink the commission, they will have enshrined this principle.

All this has important implications for the debate over the filibuster and the sweeping voting rights protections that will soon be considered in the Senate. Manchin prefers a more limited reform, which would restore protections gutted by the Supreme Court while expanding federal preclearance of voting changes to all 50 states.

Manchin is still insisting that no such changes should pass without 10 GOP senators. His argument is that protecting and expanding voting rights have been, and must be, bipartisan.

But recent history has shown that the GOP is committed to restricting voting rights and implementing anti-majoritarian tactics wherever possible, as a party, something that has only escalated this year. At bottom, as Thomas Zimmer points out, we’re staring into a deep partisan divide over our fundamental commitments to the future of multiracial liberal democracy itself.

Manchin is still holding out hope. But what if Republicans filibuster any and all voting protections, including his, after filibustering a genuine accounting into an effort to overturn a legitimate presidential election through street violence, all to cover up the role of Republicans themselves in inciting that violence?

McConnell has made it plain. If he gets his way, protecting democracy can and will only be a partisan exercise. One party will do it largely or exclusively on its own, or it won’t happen at all.

Under those circumstances, how can Manchin continue to support the filibuster while insisting that the only permissible way to protect democracy is through bipartisanship?

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