When I cast one of the deciding votes to pass the Affordable Care Act that year— a vote many warned might cost me my seat — I wore one of my father’s old wool suits. He had opposed Hillary Clinton’s 1993 health-care plan but watched regretfully as the insurance companies spread like a cancer across his profession, choking out the space between doctor and patient. I felt him nodding with approval from on high.
My dad liked Governor Joe Manchin and would have really loved Sen. Manchin for his decency and determination to fight for forgotten towns and workers. This year, the Democratic senator from West Virginia has shown marked political courage by embracing at least the aspirations of President Biden’s agenda to “build back better,” sending a signal to colleagues on both sides of the aisle that this is a time to unite around solutions rather than hide in the shadow of base politics.
As his colleagues fail to answer this call, Manchin is rapidly approaching a test of his convictions on what he must do to protect America’s historic experiment with democracy. West Virginia became a state when its citizens had the honor to break away from Virginia to defend our more perfect union. Now, their senior senator may need to break traditions to defend voting rights and the integrity of our elections. Manchin recently indicated his inability to support the For the People Act unless Republican senators show the courage to put democracy over party. He stated no substantive disagreements with the reforms, which would limit partisan gerrymandering, dark money, foreign election interference, and corporate corruption, while adopting existing voting rights and expanded election protections.
Defending voting rights and election integrity should not and cannot be a partisan issue. As the Pew Research Center found, large majorities of Americans support making it easier to vote and reducing the power of special interests through the kinds of policies enshrined in the For the People Act. It’s just the Republicans in Congress who refuse to support it.
One party is attacking democracy, and that same party is blocking attempts to protect it. Citing that as an excuse to disarm unilaterally is like telling a farmer whose cattle are being stolen that he needs the thief’s permission to put up cameras or hire guards. The bipartisanship Manchin celebrates from the 1980s, at its best, represented genuine compromise. Frankly, in this era, anything the diverse body of 50 Democratic senators can agree on probably would have been seen as “bipartisan” back then. My father’s family swung from JFK Republicans to Reagan Democrats, but they’d be at a loss to understand the Republican caucus of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.).
When I came to Congress, I represented a deep red district and dreamed of bipartisanship, and I was proud to retain support from independent and Republican voters and outperform the party brand by double digits. But the one place I found no bipartisanship was on the Hill. A few months after I was sworn in, I knew reelection the following year was a long shot. We Democrats failed to convince Americans that we were focused on the economy, and the quiet recovery was not being felt by fall of 2010.
Biden’s bold approach today reflects an understanding that, had we been able to move bolder and earlier — for instance, passing health-care reform in the summer of 2009 with a Medicare buy-in and cheaper prescription drugs — we would have won over more moderates than by taking the perceived “moderate” path that enabled corporate-captured senators to waste time and water down reforms.
A decade later, I carry three lessons from my 2009 health care vote.
First, no regrets. Why ask the voters for political power if not to use it when it matters most? I still get letters from people thanking me: Parents whose kids are growing up with the security Obamacare provides, or entrepreneurs able to start businesses because they no longer felt tied to their old job for the health insurance. I have also been reminded time and again that there is a job much better than being in Congress, and that’s being a former member of Congress. I have devoted the past decade to issues of justice at home and abroad dear to my heart, with a bigger staff and free from the constant fear that an innocuous remark will be taken out of context to become a viral attack ad.
Second, tough votes are better taken early in the election cycle than late. The months we took debating health care did not make the bill stronger or more popular. It just left more time for it to be demonized and less time for the positive effects to be felt. The reforms in these two new voting rights bills are widely popular — for instance, making Election Day a national holiday and automatically registering eligible voters. They’ll be even more so when voters see how easy and safe it is for them to vote, how much harder it is for politicians to gerrymander districts, and why corporations will have a harder time corrupting our politics.
Manchin has taken a strong stance in favor of protecting voting rights and election integrity. He has said he supports another important voting rights bill, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, but the voting and election protections in the For the People Act are urgently vital complements to that legislation for addressing 21st century threats to our democracy. Many other reforms Manchin has touted are in the 800 pages of the For the People Act and must find their way into law.
Third, Americans are so deeply cynical about Washington that the only way to build support from a broad, bipartisan set of voters is to err on the side of the boldest possible reforms. Watering down reform does not strengthen support from Republican, Democrat or independent voters — it only fuels their cynicism. If we had taken the bolder stance on the ACA, it would have been a winning issue by the midterms. With our democracy on life support, this is not the time for bandages but a robust treatment to drive a full recovery. This means not just making our elections a model for the world again, but removing corruption’s greatest ally in Washington, the filibuster, to do so.
My father’s adage about judgment day was really an old-fashioned case for something lost in today’s politics: honor. Joe Manchin is justifiably frustrated with colleagues focused more on avoiding a primary than doing what’s right. But the reality is that even the shocking actions and images of Jan. 6 could not catalyze a bipartisan front to defend democracy. Manchin is principled to set such a high bar for how the Senate proceeds, but his toughest ethical test may be how to do what is necessary when his Republican colleagues fail to meet that bar. Let’s aim higher than bipartisanship inside the Beltway.