The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Joe Manchin reaches out to Republicans, and they slap him in the face

Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) in the basement of the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

On Thursday morning, leading voting rights advocate Stacey Abrams dropped a big piece of news: She told CNN she supports Sen. Joe Manchin III’s (D-W.Va.) compromise bill to protect democracy.

Republicans were thrilled. After all, this shows that both progressive and moderate Democrats are prepared to compromise with the GOP: Manchin’s solution includes national voter ID (though in a somewhat milder form than Republicans like) and does away with numerous things in the Democrats’ sweeping voting rights legislation, both of which move in the GOP’s direction.

Just kidding! That’s not why Republicans were thrilled to hear Abrams’s endorsement. Rather, they were thrilled because, as Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri candidly put it, they now get to rebrand Manchin’s compromise as “the Stacey Abrams substitute.”

“When Stacey Abrams immediately endorsed Senator Manchin’s proposal,” Blunt told reporters, “it became the Stacey Abrams substitute, not the Joe Manchin substitute.”

Follow Greg Sargent's opinionsFollow

The careful observer will note that nothing substantive about the proposal itself changed when Abrams endorsed it. What changed is that Republicans now get to associate it with Abrams, rather than Manchin.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) also signaled that this will be the GOP approach, putting out a statement denouncing Manchin’s proposal as “the plan endorsed by Stacey Abrams.”

Why the newfound availability of this talking point is so exciting to Republicans is fairly obvious, but put that aside for now. Shouldn’t this underscore for Manchin the broader problem with his whole approach to Republicans in a highly clarifying way?

Remember, Manchin has adopted the position that no voting rights legislation should pass if it does not have bipartisan support. Manchin himself declared explicitly that the original For the People Act is a nonstarter precisely because no Republicans support it.

Achieving bipartisanship as a goal in itself is a precondition for any democracy-protecting proposal, Manchin says, because only something with bipartisan buy-in can be good for democracy. Any such bill that passes on partisan lines risks “further dividing and destroying the country.”

The problem is that this cedes total control to Republicans over the question of what is worth doing to protect democracy in the first place. Once it’s clear that no Republican will support a given package of reforms, it cannot be good for democracy by definition. Or by Manchin’s definition, anyway.

This notion is what has motivated Manchin’s refusal to entertain changing the filibuster and his quest for a voting rights bill that Republicans can support. It’s why he proposed his original plan to just restore the federal preclearance requirement for voting rules changes. And it’s why Manchin has rolled out this new compromise.

To be clear, Manchin’s proposal is in some ways good for progressives. As Richard L. Hasen writes, they should take this deal:

It includes a number of the most important voting rights and campaign finance priorities of the original bill, including a requirement of 15 days of early voting in federal elections, automatic voter registration, limits on partisan gerrymandering, and improved campaign finance disclosure. He’s also on board with extending campaign finance provisions to communications on the internet and to currently nondisclosing “dark money” groups, prohibiting false information about when, where, and how people vote, and an updated preclearance process.

Yet as Hasen notes, Manchin’s compromise also does away with numerous things Democrats want:

Many of the darlings in the For the People Act are not on Manchin’s list, such as felon reenfranchisement, public financing of congressional elections, restructuring the often-deadlocked Federal Election Commission, and limiting state voter purges. Not only would the Manchin proposal continue to allow states to engage in voter purges, it also will require some form of voter identification for voting in federal elections, though in a more relaxed form than some of the strict rules some states have enacted.

So Manchin’s compromise keeps some of the things protecting and expanding voting rights and curbing anti-majoritarian tactics that Democrats want, while getting rid of many things that Republicans oppose, including some checks on voter suppression. That’s what makes it a compromise.

Yet what this all really shows is that for Republicans, there cannot be a compromise if it entails doing much of anything at all to protect or expand voting rights. They do not have any interest in doing either. If anything, though there are some exceptions (some Republicans support early voting and making it easier to vote by mail, both of which GOP voters like), GOP lawmakers generally want to move in precisely the opposite direction.

Meanwhile, Republicans are immediately jumping at the chance to obscure the fact that this new proposal represented the work of a moderate Democrat who is reaching out in good faith to Republicans, by recasting it as the work of someone they believe they can easily caricature as a partisan activist.

All of which should illustrate the folly of seeking bipartisanship as a precondition for protecting democracy in the first place.

Watch the latest Opinions video:

The U.S. health-care system is broken, but do other countries have it better? Seven leading health economists and public policy experts weigh in. (Video: James Fox/The Washington Post, Photo: Danielle Kunitz/The Washington Post)

Read more:

Greg Sargent: How Joe Manchin’s awful new stance could blow up in his face

Dana Milbank: The absurdity of Putin’s lies should be obvious. Thanks to Trump, it isn’t.

Michele L. Norris: Germany faced its horrible past. Can we do the same?

Greg Sargent: A GOP congressman’s snub of a wounded Jan. 6 cop signals deeper GOP pathologies

Jennifer Rubin: Why Biden’s persistent optimism may be warranted