How many times will West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin have to touch the stove before he learns it’s hot? Maybe Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell taught him that lesson on Thursday.
The big news of the morning was that Manchin, who says he’s opposed to the broad “For the People” election reform bill that passed the House but stalled in the Senate, outlined a compromise that he could support. There’s a lot to like about it: It would make Election Day a public holiday, provide 15 consecutive days of early voting for federal elections and automatic voter registration through state departments of motor vehicles, and add a few other reforms to make voting easier. It would also ban partisan gerrymandering and restore some provisions of the Voting Rights Act gutted by the John Roberts Supreme Court in 2013.
I thought it might have a poison pill, for at least some Democrats: It would require voters to present some form of identification in order to cast a ballot. But Manchin’s proposal would make that easier than measures pushed by Republicans, allowing voters to present utility bills or other documents in their name, rather than strictly government-issued identification.
Before I had time to figure out the politics, Georgia voting rights champion Stacey Abrams made news by supporting it. “What Senator Manchin is putting forward are some basic building blocks that we need, to ensure that democracy is accessible no matter your geography,” she told CNN. “And those provisions that he is setting forth are strong ones that will create a level playing field, will create standards that do not vary from state to state and I think will ensure that every American has improved access to the right to vote despite the onslaught of state legislation seeking to restrict the access to vote.”
She was even open to Manchin’s voter-identification proposal. “I support voter identification,” she said. “I reject restrictive voter ID designed to keep people out of the process.” That seemed to open the door to Senate Democrats figuring out a way to work with Manchin’s compromise.
But not so much Senate Republicans, who Manchin seemed to believe might sign on to his substitute. No sooner had Abrams endorsed it than Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell opposed it, with a racially coded flourish. “The plan endorsed by Stacey Abrams is no compromise,” he said in a statement, adding that it would “supercharge cancel culture and the left’s name-and-shame campaign model” (I think that has to do with hiding the names of dark-money donors) and represents “an assault on the fundamental idea that states, not the federal government, should decide how to run their own elections.”
But he had his caucus at “Stacey Abrams.”
Missouri Senator Roy Blunt quickly got his leader’s message. He told reporters, “When Stacey Abrams immediately endorsed Senator Manchin’s proposal, it became the Stacey Abrams substitute, not the Joe Manchin substitute,” McConnell predicted Manchin’s proposal would get zero Republican votes.
We’ll see about that, but it certainly won’t get the 10 Manchin needs under the filibuster rules, which the moderate West Virginia senator insists must be preserved.
But before we move on to that vexing issue, let’s spend a moment on the pithy elegance of McConnell’s argument: With just two words, he branded a proposal by a Democrat from a very white (and red) state as “Black.” That’s it; that’s what he did. In a revealing 1981 interview released after he died, Republican campaign guru Lee Atwater, a master of using racial politics, infamously explained how it worked (the full story was first published here, in The Nation):
You start out in 1954 by saying, “N*****, n***** , n***** .” By 1968 you can’t say [that word]—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “N*****, n*****.”
Now, apparently, all a Republican has to say is “Stacey Abrams.”
On social media, most people seemed to hear McConnell’s bullhorn—we have to retire the term “dog whistle” when discussing barely veiled racist arguments, because they’ve become so loud among Republicans. But did Manchin? Will the rapid rejection of his compromise, on the heels of Abrams’s endorsing it, make him rethink his ardent support of the filibuster—at least when it comes to voting rights? Abrams herself has proposed a “carve-out” for voting-related bills, much like the exceptions the Senate has created over the years to the 60-vote rule, for budget matters as well as Supreme Court justices. Manchin has indicated he would oppose making new exceptions to the filibuster rule.
But if he truly believes in the need to advance voting rights, he might have to rethink his objections. Manchin was unlikely to get 10 votes for his compromise anyway, but its instant rejection and its racist branding by McConnell and Blunt ought to wake him to reality. Whether it will is something only he can figure out.