Biden’s Voting Rights Bluster Recycles Failed Strategy

President Joe Biden says the U.S. is facing a crisis of democracy, but he’s not acting as though he believes it.

In a speech in Philadelphia on Tuesday, Biden said that the voting system is threatened as it has not been since the Civil War. His recommended solution is to pass legislation that has been known for months to be dead in Congress and that wouldn’t address the chief problem even if successful.

Biden said that the election system had been tested three times over the last year: first by the pandemic, then by former President Donald Trump’s refusal to accept his loss (“selfishness not statesmanship,” Biden called it), and finally by the Capitol riot of Jan. 6. He went on to warn of “election subversion”: Republicans, he suggested, would make it possible for election officials to hand a state’s electors to a candidate who had lost the popular vote there.

Biden did not acknowledge that Democrats had helped set the stage for Trump’s post-election campaign of denial by their own stunts challenging election certifications, as in 2004, or that they treated Stacey Abrams as a folk hero after she pretended she had not lost the Georgia governor’s race in 2018. Still, these portions of the speech, closely tied to Trump’s post-election behavior, were mostly correct.

The rest was weaker. His criticism of Republican state legislation on voting was light on specifics and heavy on bluster. Biden said that 17 states had passed 28 laws making it harder to vote. The same source behind those numbers also reports that 14 states have passed 28 laws making it easier to vote. Four states appear on both lists, which suggests that the legislation is more complicated than Biden’s talk of a “21st-century Jim Crow assault” on voters would allow.

Biden’s appeal to Congress was to pass H.R. 1, the “For the People Act,” and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. Neither bill directly addresses election subversion. Neither amends the Electoral Count Act, the convoluted 1877 law that creates the weaknesses that determined partisans could exploit.

The bills instead include many policy changes that progressives have wanted for a long time, from new taxpayer subsidies for political campaigns to restrictions on states’ ability to require photo identification for voters. Biden counted such requirements, by the way, as measures that make it harder to vote, even though they have not been found to discourage voting.

The bills don’t have nearly enough support in the Senate to overcome a filibuster. H.R. 1 does not even have a simple majority in favor. Two Democrats, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, have repeatedly said they will not vote to abolish the filibuster, and it is widely known that other Democrats privately agree with them.

Progressives have been criticizing Biden for not doing more for these bills. But no speech, however passionate, is going to resurrect H.R. 1. Telling Republicans that state laws they are comfortable supporting are “odious” or “vicious” and that they should feel “shame” isn’t going to alter their thinking. The speech may not even mollify progressives, who are already noting that Biden did not mention the word “filibuster,” let alone call for ending it.

Biden’s speech could be read as a kind of defiant surrender. He gave progressives rousing rhetoric knowing full well it was not going to affect any legislative outcome, and quietly outlined the fallback strategy: Democrats will spend a lot of money to turn out voters and adapt their campaigns to any new voting rules that state legislatures put in place. It’s a realistic plan of action, albeit one that does not match the ominous Jim Crow warnings. Democracy is dead, he seemed to say, but we can still win elections.

The Biden administration does not appear to have considered inverting its legislative strategy: dropping the liberal wish list and building bipartisan support for fixing the Electoral Count Act. That tack would not be guaranteed to yield a new law. But it would, if successful, at least address the specific problem Biden highlighted. And it is superior to the current strategy in that it has not already failed.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a senior editor at National Review and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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