The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Behind their big defeat, Democrats may have reached a turning point

(Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)
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For years, Democrats have been waiting for Republicans to have their “epiphany,” to realize that scorched-earth politics and implacable opposition to anything a Democratic president might suggest are not good for the country. The epiphany has arrived — but it’s the Democrats who have finally come to understand reality, and are prepared to act accordingly.

This might seem like a moment of Democratic defeat. But it could be a turning point, one that leads to more progress in the future.

At his Wednesday news conference, President Biden was asked whether he had over-promised and what he planned to change in the remainder of his term. In response, he said, “I did not anticipate that there’d be such a stalwart effort to make sure that the most important thing was that President Biden didn’t get anything done.”

Lots of people anticipated it — it has been a topic of debate for years, and Biden took a lot of criticism in the 2020 campaign from those who thought his claim that he could persuade Republicans to work with him was disingenuous or naive. Every reasonable observer knew that the GOP would approach his presidency with the same strategy it used with Barack Obama: Oppose almost everything the president proposes, and do everything in the party’s power to make him fail.

But what matters at the moment isn’t whether Biden ever believed the GOP would act differently. It’s that he seems ready to stop pretending that a dawn of bipartisan cooperation is about to break.

Now consider what happened that night, when Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin III (W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.) joined with every Republican to shoot down a rules change that would have allowed two voting rights bills — bills Manchin and Sinema claim to support — to receive an up-or-down vote.

It was absolutely a defeat, for Biden, for his party, and most of all for voters. But it also represented a significant shift within the Democratic Party. That’s because every single Democrat apart from Manchin and Sinema supported setting aside the filibuster.

A variety of factors led them there. The obstructionism and radicalism of today’s GOP certainly played a part. Perhaps just as important, we’ve had our first real, detailed debate about the filibuster, and all the arguments in its defense were revealed to be so preposterous that it has become almost impossible for any honest person to oppose reforming it.

As Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), a more moderate Democrat, explained in a passionate plea, the Senate has adjusted filibuster rules to allow majority votes more than 160 times, including for such pressing matters as “approving compensation plans for commercial space accidents.”

So with two exceptions, every member of the Democratic caucus, from progressives such as Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) to moderates such as Jon Tester (Mont.) and Angus King (I-Maine), agreed that the filibuster has to change here as well.

There was nothing like that kind of unanimity even a year ago. That glass is now 48/50ths full.

And the defeat of these voting rights bills, which is extremely painful for both Democratic legislators and their party’s base, might actually hasten the filibuster’s demise.

As I’ve noted, in every state where Democrats have a chance to take a Republican Senate seat, all Democratic primary candidates favor scrapping the filibuster. That includes both moderates and progressives. Though there are many things that divide, for instance, Rep. Conor Lamb and Lt. Gov. John Fetterman in Pennsylvania, they agree the filibuster should go.

Democrats, including the president who has spent so much time insisting that he can achieve bipartisanship, are simply done waiting for Republicans to see the light. The next step is for them to get mad enough to do something about it.

Which might happen. Even though the most likely outcome in 2022 is a Republican sweep (following the usual midterm election pattern), Democratic voters can and should be angry enough about the death of these voting bills — among many other things, including the Supreme Court’s likely overturning of Roe v. Wade this year — to organize, register and overcome Republican voter suppression to get to the polls in November.

If you’re a Democrat and you’re mad at Manchin and Sinema — and you should be — the answer is to make them irrelevant by electing a few more Democrats to the Senate.

Besides, they’ll probably be around for only a few more years. Manchin might not run for reelection in 2024, and if he does, he’ll probably lose, as long as Republicans find a halfway decent candidate in deep-red West Virginia. And after this, Sinema couldn’t win a Democratic primary for dogcatcher; if she runs again the same year, she’ll face a strong primary challenge.

So it’s not hard to imagine the Senate considering voting rights again in the near future — and this time, there will be 50 votes to pass it.

Thanks to Manchin and Sinema, and to Republicans who remain just what they’ve been all along, Democrats can no longer afford to delude themselves about how politics works today. And for a change, they all know it.

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