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Opinion Finally, some moral clarity in the voting rights debate

Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) speaks with a reporter at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 19 after Senate Republicans blocked voting rights legislation. (Eric Lee/Bloomberg News)
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It has become fashionable for Republicans to roll their eyes whenever Democrats insist on having an extended debate on voting rights. Fruitless. A stunt. Why bother? Even some in the media and a few grumpy Democrats have dismissed the need for it. What’s the point of President Biden speaking since he does not have the votes to pass a bill? Why extend the agony?

Now we have an answer. On Wednesday night, every Republican voted against reauthorization of Section 5 of the Voting Right Act and the Freedom to Vote Act; every Republican plus Sens. Joe Manchin lll (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) then voted against changing the filibuster rule, thereby dooming passage of the bill.

A funny thing about those votes: They put the best and the worst of the Senate on full display.

This was a clarifying moment for the country. The two Democratic senators’ excuses for leaving the filibuster in place have been utterly debunked. Manchin, for example, made the preposterous statement that the filibuster had a 232-year tradition in the Senate. It wasn’t until the late 19th century that the filibuster was used to block legislation. Since then, the Senate has repeatedly carved out exceptions, such as to confirm judges, to pass budget reconciliation bills and to raise the debt ceiling.

Meanwhile, the moral and intellectual chasm between the parties has rarely been so vivid. Republicans offered nary a word as to why the Voting Rights Act should not be fully restored. The argument was nearly entirely devoted to defending a false account of the Senate’s procedural history.

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Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) on Wednesday shredded the “never before changed the filibuster” argument. Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D-Ga.) gave one of the most stirring speeches, making clear that while John Lewis gave blood on the Edmund Pettus bridge, this Senate couldn’t bring itself to “bridge” a procedural rule. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), who bent over backward to accommodate Manchin’s concerns on voting reforms, blasted the gamesmanship: “I think by voting this down, by not allowing us even to debate this, to get to the conclusion of a vote, that is silencing the people of America, all in the name of an archaic Senate rule that isn’t even in the Constitution. That’s just wrong.”

When Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) insisted it was unfair to equate voting restrictions to Jim Crow, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) let him have it. “Don’t lecture me about Jim Crow,” Booker declared angrily. “I know this is not 1965. And that’s what makes me so outraged. It is 2022, and they are blatantly removing more polling places from the counties where Blacks and Latinos are overrepresented.”

Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), who lost two legs and partial use of an arm in battle, excoriated the GOP’s cowardice. “I’m not asking Republicans to do anything near as difficult as what John Lewis went through for our democracy. All I’m asking for is the bare minimum,” she said. “All I’m begging them to do is to not sit in silence in the face of grave injustice.”

Here was one party elevating the principles of the republic, seeking to undo a partisan crusade launched in the states against voting. The other hid behind a Senate rule with a checkered past, lacking any moral grounding for their opposition.

Biden did not let up, either. “There are certain things that are so consequential that you have to speak from the heart as well as your head," he said at his Wednesday news conference in response to criticism for saying that Republicans would be on the side of Bull Connor and George Wallace if they continue to pursue their voter suppression tactics. “You don’t get to vote this way and somehow it goes away,” he added. “This will stick with you the rest of your career and long after you’re gone.” It’s typical that on an issue of such historic importance, all the Republicans could think to do was to play the victim.

The media today so often frame politics about winning and losing. Had they been covering John Lewis on the bridge, one shudders to think that they might have “scored” that day as a win for the Alabama troopers who met the marchers with clubs and tear gas. Coverage entirely denuded of moral content becomes camouflage for bad conduct.

Democrats cannot force Republicans to do the right thing. But Democrats did force Republicans and their two Democratic cohorts to reveal the paucity of their arguments and the puniness of their consciences.