So What The Hell Do We Do Now? (Joe Manchin Edition)

By Ezra Levin, Co-Founder & Co-Executive Director, Indivisible

Profile view of West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin in a navy blue suit and purple tie, slouched down in a chair in a Senate Committee room with glasses balanced on the end of his nose, seemingly thinking about how he isn’t going to do his Constitutional duty to protect people’s voting rights and our nation’s democracy.

If you had the misfortune of being online this weekend, you might have seen Senator Manchin’s op-ed explaining his opposition to the For the People Act (here). The piece is riddled with historical falsehoods and bizarre, antiquated political analysis. We won’t spend a lot of time on that (Rep. Mondaire Jones has a good thread on it here if you’re interested). But worth noting upfront: despite the intransigence of Senate Republicans, the For the People Act has overwhelming bipartisan support in West Virginia and across the country, including overwhelming majorities amongst Democrats, Independents, and Republicans. I’m here to give you my best take on what this means, what comes next, and what is to be done.

Here’s the short version: This democracy fight is coming to a head now, which means things are getting ugly. Manchin doesn’t want to move forward without GOP support, but he also doesn’t want to be squeezed, so he wrote his op-ed trying to head off a showdown where he comes off as the bad guy. Don’t get me wrong, his opposition in this moment is bad, but it’s not game over. We need to stop treating him with kid gloves, but most of all, we need top-level leadership from President Biden and Majority Leader Schumer, and we need grassroots-level leadership from all of you (click here to find out what you can do). One way or another, the showdown is coming soon.

First, why did Manchin write this op-ed now?

To understand Manchin’s actions, you have to view them in the context of recent events. We’re in the pre-negotiation phase of the democracy reform fight. What you’re seeing is posturing ahead of the showdown.

Just last week, Majority Leader Schumer announced plans to start forcing the GOP to actually filibuster bills. Their first filibuster was of the bipartisan Jan 6th commission. Schumer plans to bring up the Paycheck Fairness Act this week, and the For the People Act the week of June 21st.

The point of scheduling these votes is not because anybody believes they’d actually pass on the first try. Of course, they won’t pass — McConnell will filibuster them. Instead, the point of scheduling these votes is to force McConnell to filibuster — to demonstrate to Manchin and any other hold-out Senate Democrats that the other side will simply sink everything. Prove that Senate Republicans are just obstructionists, the logic goes, and then that will help unify the Senate Democrats to act.

But Manchin would prefer not to force that question. As misguided as it is, Manchin believes that to protect voting rights, we should have to get the consent of the party that is attacking voting rights. He wrote this op-ed to try and take the wind out of the sails of those setting up that showdown. If folks throw in the towel on the For the People Act, Manchin can go back to talking to Republican senators about roads and bridges.

So what comes next?

All attention has been on Manchin, and to a lesser extent, Senator Sinema, but the real main character in this play is Schumer. As Majority Leader, he controls the Senate calendar. He can’t make the pieces move, but it’s his job to set up the play. Manchin just threw a wrench in the gears, and so now he has to adapt.

The risk this week: The big risk we’re facing this week is that Manchin’s announcement derails Schumer’s plan to bring popular bills for a vote. That would look like Schumer canceling the planned vote, pointing to Sinema’s opposition to filibuster reform and Manchin’s op-ed, and saying, “Look, we tried, but we just don’t have the votes.” Another plausible version of this would be Schumer announcing that he is still fully committed to the For the People Act, but he is delaying the vote to some future unspecified date. Delay is death for this legislation.

This will be a crucial test of Schumer’s leadership: will he allow his plan to be derailed, or will he hold firm? Remember, Schumer has sworn up and down that “Failure is not an option” because he wants everybody to know how much he cares about this. Now’s the time to see if he backs up these words with action.

What victory will look like: If Schumer sticks to his guns, the first vote on the For the People Act will come the week of June 21st. As expected, McConnell will filibuster it. But then the fight goes on. Possibly Schumer forces McConnell to keep filibustering on the Senate floor for days or longer. When the Senate returns from the 4th of July recess, he brings up the bill again and forces McConnell to filibuster it again. He grinds senate business down to a halt, refusing action on anything until there is a vote on the For the People Act. All the while, during the days and weeks of the fight, senators offer amendments, the President uses the full power of his bully pulpit to focus national attention on the issue, and masses of grassroots advocates show up in communities across the country to demand Congress act to save the democracy.

If we win democracy-saving reforms this year, that’s what victory will look like.

What needs to happen

If we’re going to achieve that victory in the coming weeks, three things need to happen:

Isolate Manchin. If Manchin’s got 10 GOP votes for democracy, great — show us. If he doesn’t, he needs to stop enabling McConnell. Indivisible’s position is this: Democracy is on the line, and he needs to put up or shut up.

Historically, a senator who’s stroking his chin and making lofty pronouncements about bipartisanship can expect a warm response from much of Washington and his constituents. It’s really important that that not be Manchin’s experience with this op-ed. Manchin is doing what southern segregationist senators did for decades: using the filibuster to block voting rights legislation. Simple as that. No media figure, no Democratic politician, and certainly no grassroots advocate should give him any reinforcement. If you’re from West Virginia, you should be calling Manchin (duh!), but if you’re from anywhere else in the country, you should be demanding your senators speak out right now to reiterate that the path forward depends on For the People, not hazy ideas about compromising with a party of insurrectionists.

We can be honest that Manchin doesn’t care that much about pressure from his left — but there’s a big difference between getting pushed by the lefties and feeling the full weight of the entire party, congressional leadership, and the President pushing for a resolution here. And that brings us to…

Leadership from the top. Manchin is not the king of the universe — he’s a single senator working within a complex political system. And in that system, hard legislation never gets done unless key political leaders prioritize it. Since Manchin’s op-ed, we’ve seen no statement at all from President Biden or Majority Leader Schumer. Radio silence is not what you want to hear from your leaders at moments of national crisis. We need Schumer to publicly, loudly, forcefully recommit to getting democracy reform done before August recess. And we need President Biden using his full moral authority and bully pulpit power to drive the national conversation and urgency around the threats to our democracy.

Leadership from the grassroots. This is Indivisible’s whole theory of change: elected officials don’t do what their constituents want unless those constituents make them do it. This is why we showed up to save the Affordable Care Act. It’s why we demanded our Democratic House impeach Trump. And it’s why we have to show up creatively, forcefully, and in big numbers to encourage this Democratic trifecta to finally act. This is precisely why we are launching the Deadline for Democracy nationwide actions this Friday. We’ll have more details then — but suffice it to say this is the largest cross-movement coalition we’ve been part of since the fight to save Obamacare. You can sign up and start recruiting folks here to get details when it launches.

So, where does that leave us?

Let’s review:

  • We are headed for a series of GOP-led filibusters this month
  • Manchin’s terrible op-ed was intended to take the wind out of our sails
  • The only realistic pathway to victory on democracy reform is a drawn-out legislative fight
  • Victory depends on the full commitment of Biden and Schumer, and historic grassroots engagement

If this were easy, it would have been done already. If this were pre-ordained, we wouldn’t have to make it happen. If this were a lost cause, I wouldn’t be writing you this email. It’s not easy, it’s not pre-ordained, it’s not lost. That’s what makes what we do right now so important.

We’re living through historic times, so I’ll turn to some history to close us out. In 1964, it took overcoming a 54-day filibuster to pass the Civil Rights Act in the Senate. The next year it took more than a month after the Voting Rights Act started full senate debate to get past the threat of a filibuster. The Jim Crow filibuster, then as now, did not go down without a long, drawn-out fight.

The For the People Act has not even been scheduled for a full senate vote yet. There’s been no debate. There’s been no filibuster. This is all pre-negotiation posturing — Manchin’s effort to defuse the situation so he can continue playacting the role of a statesman. But Manchin doesn’t get to decide what happens next — we do. Click here to pledge to take action.

The real fight has not yet begun, but it’s coming, and we’re bringing it.

Indivisible is a locally-led, nationally coordinated movement-building progressive power in every state.

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