Will Biden's Voting Rights Speech Be Too Little Too Late?

Will Biden's Voting Rights Speech Be Too Little Too Late? 1

This article has been updated to reflect news developments.

Joe Biden has finally issued a full-throated, unreserved endorsement of ending the filibuster in order to pass voting rights legislation. But it came in the last days of the battle — less than a week before Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Senate majority leader, plans to hold a vote on the legislation — and only after Biden’s other, superseding priority, the Build Back Better plan, flamed out.

For a year, activists have been screaming and pleading and begging and getting arrested, trying to get the White House to put the full weight of the presidency behind protecting voting rights, only to be met by silence or soft-pedaling.

But finally, on Tuesday, President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris traveled to Atlanta to deliver forceful speeches calling on Congress to reform the filibuster and protect voting rights, all the things activists had been asking them to do for months. Some activists were so exasperated that they refused to go to the speech. Members of Martin Luther King Jr.’s family did attend, but even they said that it was a “difficult decision” because of their frustrations with the White House’s past inaction.

When Biden fully entered the battle, the other warriors were already bloody, bruised and exhausted.

Biden said during the speech: “I’ve been having these quiet conversations with the members of Congress for the last two months. I’m tired of being quiet!” Mr. President, so are we. Your prison of quietness was one of your own construction. You were free to leave it at any time. You didn’t until this week.

The question now is whether, at the 11th hour, his foray into the battle will prove to be too little too late.

The real villains here are the Republicans restricting ballot access and reducing the voting power of people, mostly people of color, at the state level, and the Republicans in Congress refusing to stop them.

Democrats are the only ones with the power to fight back, and they said that they would. When he was running for president, Joe Biden’s campaign released a position statement entitled, “Lift Every Voice: The Biden Plan for Black America.” In it, they described how “tackling systemic racism and fighting for civil rights” had been a “driving force throughout Biden’s career in public service,” and promised that he would “strengthen our democracy by guaranteeing that every American’s vote is protected,” starting with updating the Voting Rights Act and developing a new process for “pre-clearance,” the provision that prevented states with a history of discrimination from changing their voting laws without approval by the Department of Justice.

Sounds urgent, right? Well, apparently it wasn’t. Biden has been dillydallying on getting rid of the filibuster to protect voting rights for essentially his whole administration, until this week.

Tom Brenner/Reuters

At a CNN town hall in July, an audience member asked why Biden wouldn’t support getting rid of the rule to support voting rights, and although he called new state voter restriction measures “Jim Crow on steroids,” he only committed to restoring a talking filibuster, not getting rid of the rule altogether.

The host, Don Lemon, pressed him on the issue, asking if protecting the filibuster was more important than protecting voting rights. Biden responded that he wanted to pass the voting rights legislation, but he insisted that he also wanted to make sure that we “bring along not just all the Democrats; we bring along Republicans, who I know — know better. They know better than this. And what I don’t want to do is get wrapped up, right now, in the argument of whether or not this is all about the filibuster. ” We all see how horribly that has ended.

Biden ended the exchange by saying, “The American public, you can’t stop them from voting.” That statement was patently false. You can absolutely erect effective legal barriers to ballot access. Even a cursory reading of American history reveals a long legacy of extremely effective voter suppression and intimidation.

In that interview with CNN, Biden defended the filibuster to the end, saying that the reason to protect it was to avoid throwing the entire Congress “into chaos” and the possibility that “nothing” would ever “get done.”

Three months later, in another CNN town hall, Biden finally said that he was open to “fundamentally” altering the filibuster, but he was cautious and explained why he wanted to avoid fully engaging in the filibuster fight:

“If, in fact, I get myself into, at this moment, the debate on the filibuster, I lose three — at least three votes right now to get what I have to get done on the economic side of the equation — the foreign policy side of the equation.”

Now that Senator Joe Manchin has torpedoed the spending bill, at least for the moment, Biden has finally moved on to voting rights.

The signal this all sends is that protecting voting rights — and therefore the fullness of our democracy — was not the issue, but rather an issue, a lesser issue.

This is precisely the point the Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, made Wednesday when he rebuffed Biden in a speech on the floor of the Senate:

President Biden’s story is that democracy is on death’s door, but he spent nine months chasing a reckless taxing and spending spree before addressing it? Must not be that much of an emergency. Citizens are meant to believe a return of Jim Crow is on the table, but this was only President Biden’s sixth priority, after he was blocked from spending $5 trillion on windmills and welfare. Democrats’ own behavior refutes their false hysteria.

McConnell is accomplice to the crime of voter suppression, but Biden’s foot-dragging gave McConnell ammunition to use against reform.

I hope that this is a better-late-than-never situation, that Biden’s engagement will help move some senators from “no” to “yes” on reforming the filibuster. But hope is a feature of faith, not a pillar of politics.

The Democratic holdouts to getting rid of the filibuster show no signs of changing their minds. And now they know that they only have to withstand less than a week of pressure from the White House before the vote, rather than months of it. (On Wednesday, Mr. Schumer announced that he would use a procedural shortcut to bring voting rights legislation to the floor for debate by Monday at the latest.) States like Texas, with new voter suppression laws and new racially gerrymandered maps, begin early voting in February.

During Biden’s victory speech he said, “Especially at those moments when this campaign was at its lowest ebb, the African American community stood up again for me,” and he continued, “You’ve always had my back, and I’ll have yours.”

Well, if voting protections fail, many in the Black community will feel like they have been stabbed in the back.

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