West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin’s problem is twofold. First, he fetishizes bipartisanship during one of the most hyperpartisan eras of modern American politics. Second, he enthusiastically supports anti-majoritarian mechanisms in national governance, such as the filibuster, that pose an existential threat to the Democrats’ legislative agenda, if not the Democratic Party itself. Many Democrats, most notably President Joe Biden, have reassessed their priors in the wake of Trumpism and McConnellism. Manchin staunchly refuses to do so.
His latest commentary on the state of play—and perhaps his worst yet—came over the weekend in an op-ed in The Charleston Gazette-Mail. It’s hardly news that Manchin is still committed to protecting the filibuster in its current form. He even shut the door this spring to reforms that would preserve the filibuster but make it harder for the opposition to sustain. Now he has gone a step further by not just defending the GOP’s de facto veto over majority rule but also opposing the flagship Democratic legislation that many members of his own party hope to pass despite it.
“I believe that partisan voting legislation will destroy the already weakening binds of our democracy, and for that reason, I will vote against the For the People Act,” he wrote. “Furthermore, I will not vote to weaken or eliminate the filibuster. For as long as I have the privilege of being your U.S. senator, I will fight to represent the people of West Virginia, to seek bipartisan compromise no matter how difficult and to develop the political bonds that end divisions and help unite the country we love.”
It’s worth emphasizing that Manchin is, by his own admission, voting against the bill for purely aesthetic reasons. He does not offer a single genuine critique of the For the People Act. If Manchin expressed strong opposition to any of its major provisions—automatic voter registration, same-day voter registration, stricter campaign-finance disclosure rules, strengthened ethics rules for the White House and the Supreme Court, and a ban on gerrymandering, to name a few—then his position would be more intellectually defensible. But his only stated rationale for opposing it is that Republicans also oppose it.
Opposing the For the People Act does not automatically place someone on the side of Trumpism, of course. There are good-faith critiques of it to be made: The American Civil Liberties Union opposed some of the campaign-finance provisions on First Amendment grounds, for instance, while some Black lawmakers have expressed concern that the bill’s redistricting reforms could imperil majority-minority districts when legislative maps are redrawn. Manchin does not even need to oppose the bill to defend the filibuster: He could vote in favor of the bill and still oppose an attempt to destroy the filibuster to pass it, just as he supported a bill to create a January 6 commission last month that still died to a Republican filibuster.
What’s troubling is how Manchin framed the debate surrounding the bill itself. “Unfortunately, we now are witnessing that the fundamental right to vote has itself become overtly politicized,” he wrote. “Today’s debate about how to best protect our right to vote and to hold elections, however, is not about finding common ground, but seeking partisan advantage. Whether it is state laws that seek to needlessly restrict voting or politicians who ignore the need to secure our elections, partisan policymaking won’t instill confidence in our democracy—it will destroy it.”
I won’t belabor the oft-made point that Republicans aren’t actually interested in reaching common ground on these issues. The really troubling moment here is his reference to “politicians who ignore the need to secure our elections,” which he juxtaposes with “state laws that seek to needlessly restrict voting.” This framing is straight out of the Fox News Cinematic Universe. American elections are already secure. The 2020 presidential election was free and fair. Neither the Trump Justice Department nor the FBI, nor election officials in any of the 50 states found any evidence of systemic or significant fraud or misconduct last year.
Many Republicans are more than happy to indulge in conspiracy theories about the 2020 election, either to satiate Trump’s obsessive hunger to lie about the outcome or to build a fraudulent case for voting restrictions that would harm Democratic constituencies. (Note that Manchin criticizes “politicians” on election security but attributes voter suppression to disembodied “state laws” instead of the Republican state lawmakers who are currently in a frenzy to pass such laws.) Other Republicans have opted to traffic in a MAGA-lite form of the conspiracy theory. A phantasmal and unspecific threat to election security is offered; a bill to reduce absentee voting and other pro-turnout measures is introduced; a series of new restrictions gets signed into law.
Manchin isn’t quite embracing these conspiracy theories, of course. But his implicit claim that Democrats aren’t interested in secure elections is an uncomfortable step toward the Big Lie. Elections can always be more secure. Congress should take any appropriate steps to ensure that Americans’ votes are accurately and conclusively counted. Indeed, the For the People Act includes provisions to do just that. It mandates that all voting machines are built in the United States, strengthens testing and certification processes for voting equipment, provides more resources for cybersecurity efforts, and authorizes grants for security improvements at the state and local level. By opposing this bill on aesthetic grounds, Manchin is arguably “ignoring the need to secure our elections” more than any of his Democratic colleagues ever have.
So what are his alternatives? Manchin instead threw his support behind the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would update the Voting Rights Act of 1965. To his credit, this bill is no small thing. Not only would it restore the preclearance formula that the Supreme Court struck down in its 2013 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder, it would also apply the preclearance process to every single state in the Union. That could be a formidable shield against voter suppression, especially in the numerous Republican-led states that weren’t covered by the pre-2013 formula.
To his discredit, however, Manchin has also doomed that bill to legislative oblivion by simply begging Republicans to support it. “My Republican colleague, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, has joined me in urging Senate leadership to update and pass this bill through regular order,” Manchin wrote in the op-ed. “I continue to engage with my Republican and Democratic colleagues about the value of the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and I am encouraged by the desire from both sides to transcend partisan politics and strengthen our democracy by protecting voting rights.”
Ah, well, that should do the trick. Republicans controlled one or both chambers of Congress in the seven years that followed Shelby County and did nothing to restore the preclearance formula during that time. Many of them instead welcomed the ruling. The GOP’s desire to make it harder to vote for political advantage is a fundamental force in modern American politics, predating Trump’s rise to power and permeating every level of the party. Perhaps the most mystifying statement of all is Manchin’s reference to the “desire from both sides” to “transcend partisan politics and strengthen our democracy by protecting voting rights.” If this is what Manchin thinks the GOP is like when it supports voting rights, what does it look like to him when it opposes them?
If Manchin had an ounce of strategic sense, he would have kept open the possibility in public that he’d scrap the filibuster. That would have given him the ability at least to try to pressure Republicans into backing the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act in a cloture vote. “If you guys don’t scrounge up 10 votes for this bill,” Manchin could have told them, “then we could be forced to get rid of the filibuster and pass the one you really don’t like.” Would it have worked? Maybe. Maybe not. But it would have had better odds than Manchin’s current strategy, which combines unilateral disarmament with performative groveling. This is only a winning combination if your goal all along is to lose.