Biden swings and totally misses on filibuster, voting rights

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President Joe Biden and CNN moderator Don Lemon at televised town hall, July 21, 2021.

President Joe Biden’s clear intent to try to unify the nation is laudable. It’s a message a very large chunk of America loves to hear: that the people they elected will come together to rebuild the nation and recover from the pandemic. “I come from a tradition in the Senate,” said Biden. “You shake your hand. That’s it. You keep your word.” He singled out one Republican senator in particular, Ohio’s Rob Portman. “You know, there’s—Portman is a good man. […] He’s a decent, honorable man, and he and I are working on trying to get this—this infrastructure bill passed. […] You shake his hand, it’s done.” That’s Biden Wednesday evening. Here’s that good, trustworthy man he’s talking about Thursday morning.

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“Our country is too deeply divided already and needs to heal from the wounds caused by the attack on January 6—not divide further due to a partisan select committee report.” Portman is defending Jim Jordan, who would have been absolutely fine with Portman being collateral damage when the mob attacked Congress on Jan. 6. He’s retiring, so he’s not doing this to shore up his base support in Ohio. He’s actively trying to help cover up Republican complicity in the insurrection, which makes what Biden said later on the filibuster sound so much more naive and delusional.

Audience member Cory Marcum asked Biden specifically about his passionate but ultimately meaningless speech last week on voting rights, when he called Republican voter suppression “the most dangerous threat to voting and the integrity of free and fair elections in our history.” If Biden means that, Marcum asked, if “these efforts are really the most dangerous in our history, isn’t it logical to get rid of the filibuster so we can protect our democracy and secure the right to vote?” Good question, in answer to which he got more of Joe Biden who was in the Senate for too long and is working on outdated assumptions about it.

Biden started out his answer: “I stand by what I said. Never before has there been an attempt by state legislatures to take over the ability to determine who won. […] This is Jim Crow on steroids what we’re talking about.” He also says “the filibuster is pretty overwhelming.” And then he gives his solution: “I would go back to that where you have to maintain the floor. You have to stand there and talk and hold the floor.”

Fine, CNN moderator Don Lemon follows up. “But what difference is that if you hold the floor for, you know, a day or a year? What difference does it make?” Because at the end of the day Republicans are still going to block the legislation. Then Lemon makes it personal.

Here’s the thing for me: You talked about people—and this is important for people who look like me. My grandmother would sit around when I was a kid, […] [she] had a fifth-grade education. I learned that she couldn’t read when I was doing my homework. And she would tell me stories about people asking her to count the number of jellybeans in the jar or the soap.

And so why is protecting the filibuster—is that more important than protecting voting rights, especially for people who fought and died for that?

Compelling stuff. Which makes Biden’s answer the second biggest fail in this discussion: “What I also want to do—I want to make sure we bring along not just all the Democrats; we bring along Republicans, who I know know better. They know better than this.” They might know better, but they’re going to be like his “good man” Rob Portman who is defending insurrectionist, Trumpist Rep. Jim Jordan over finding out the truth about what happened on Jan. 6.

Then came Biden’s greatest failure of the night. He put the burden of overcoming “Jim Crow on steroids” on the people who got him elected, the people who put him in the White House to end the Republican tyranny in the state. “Look, the American public, you can’t stop them from voting,” Biden said. “You tried last time. More people voted last time than any time in American history, in the middle of the worst pandemic in American history. […] They’re going to show up again. They’re going to do it again.”

Black Voters Matter cofounder Cliff Albright puts it better than I can: “He expects community activists—particularly Black activists—to simply recreate the Herculean effort that it took to mobilize voters in 2020 (and the 2021 GA runoff). And to do so in spite of historic new voter suppression. He lied when he said he’d have our backs.”

Cliff Albright tweet on Biden and the filibuster: "He expects community activists—particularly Black activists—to simply recreate the Herculean effort that it took to mobilize voters in 2020 (and the 2021 GA runoff). And to do so in spite of historic new voter suppression. He lied when he said he’d have our backs."

Lemon, probably thinking something very much akin to that, tried again, invoking President Barack Obama. “If you agree with the former president […] as you call him, your ‘old boss’—that it’s ‘a relic of Jim Crow’ […] If it’s a relic of Jim Crow, it’s been used to fight against civil rights legislation historically, why protect it?”

Because, Biden says, if you end it “you’re going to throw the entire Congress into chaos and nothing will get done. […] Nothing at all will get done.” (Because the Senate has been such a paragon of doing things since Mitch McConnell took over the Republicans.) Then Biden pivots to something that did get done: “How many of you have children under the age of 17? Raise your hand. Guess what? You’re getting a lot of money in a monthly check now, aren’t you? […] It’s called the Child Tax Credit.”

Which passed with zero Republican votes in the Senate. Zero. Democrats did that entirely on their own under budget reconciliation, the process they had to use because Republicans would have filibustered that and the absolutely urgent and essential COVID-19 relief it was a part of.

It’s clear that Biden’s heart is in the right place. It’s clear that he believes the Republicans he served with in the Senate will value that shared experience as he does, that they will be his friends, that he can achieve their support. But Biden needs to hear McConnell when he says he has “total unity from Susan Collins to Ted Cruz in opposition to what the new Biden administration is trying to do to this country.”

His bully pulpit isn’t going to work to woo Republicans to do the right thing. Nothing but consigning them to years in the desert of being in the minority could achieve that. What he could do with that bully pulpit is honor the blood, sweat, and tears of the activists who got him to the White House. He could use his power to convince those handful of filibuster reform holdouts that securing voting rights is more important that Senate comity.

But first we have to convince him.

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