Sen. Jon Tester is a Democrat in Montana, a state that Donald Trump won in 2020 by 16 points. That’s pretty red territory. Indeed, Tester himself won reelection in 2018 by a scant 3.5 points. It’s tough for a Democrat to survive in such places.

That’s why it’s worth paying attention to what Tester is saying about possibly ending the filibuster. He’s offering a way to talk about the issue — and whether Democrats should act to protect voting rights — that seems like the beginnings of a model for Democrats in red and swing states.

MSNBC’s Chris Hayes asked Tester on Wednesday night about Republican opposition to doing much of anything on infrastructure, and Tester’s answer was interesting. Watch it here:

Note that Tester began by saying it’s always better to do legislation on a bipartisan basis. But then he immediately pivoted to the fact that Republicans are already blocking all sorts of constructive action on a sharply partisan basis themselves.

Tester pointed out, for instance, that Republicans are blocking an examination of a violent attack on our seat of government. He also noted that most ordinary voters don’t want to suppress the votes of fellow citizens, and carefully delineated them from GOP state legislators who are doing this on a “very partisan basis.”

That treats deliberate voter suppression as an act of terrible disrespect toward fellow Americans (which it is), something most ordinary Americans wouldn’t dream of doing. And Tester equated the need to let people vote with the need to get things done: People should be empowered to pick their representatives to act in their interests.

Finally, after noting that the filibuster has been “weaponized” to block action, Tester said that “at some point in time, this country needs Congress to act and get things done.” A bit later, Tester reiterated that he really doesn’t want to end the filibuster, but unceasing dysfunction might ultimately require it.

Everything here is cast as being about how to make government work for people, how to make it responsive to them, how to enable the government to get important things done.

Now think about how Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.V.) talks about these issues. For him, everything is the other way around: Nothing should happen unless it has bipartisan support. The merits of any legislative action depend entirely on that, not on the substance of that action. The For the People Act is a nonstarter precisely because no Republicans support it.

Thus, Manchin says we must keep the filibuster, because it forces bipartisan cooperation, the precondition for any policy to be worthwhile.

The filibuster doesn’t actually incentivize bipartisanship, but never mind that for now. The point is Manchin’s framing concedes the game up front. Once Republicans don’t support something, it was never worth doing in the first place. They don’t have to even answer for their role in killing the possibility of action. It didn’t win them over, so it was bad, suggesting implicitly that they were right to oppose it all along.

It should be obvious on its face how absurd that is. Fortunately, more Democrats appear to be gravitating toward Tester’s approach as the party works toward a way of talking about this:

  • Sen. Mark Kelly of Arizona told NBC’s Sahil Kapur that he’s appalled by how inefficient the Senate is as an organization, and that he might be open to changing the filibuster if he judges it to be in the interests of his state and the country.
  • Sen. Jacky Rosen of Nevada told The Post that she would support ending the filibuster if it’s necessary to protect democracy, to “protect the fundamental rights of Americans,” stressing the need to “get it done.”
  • Sen. Angus King of Maine, an independent, told CNN that he’s “very reluctant” to change the filibuster, but he will if it’s necessary to “defend democracy” and prevent our system from being “subverted.”

In all these cases, ending the filibuster is framed as a last resort, a step to be taken reluctantly, in order to make our system work and enable the government to do urgently needed things.

There seems to be a built in presumption among some reporter-types that Manchin’s approach must simply be shrewd, given his state’s lean. But is conceding all power to Republicans to define in advance what counts as worthwhile legislative action really what’s necessary to survive in a red state?

Who knows: Being in favor of making government function also seems like it just might work.

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