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analysis

The failure of the voting rights bill is the moment when Biden loses the left

There are signs liberals are beginning to blame President Biden for not doing enough to pass major legislation.

President Biden.
President Biden.Kevin Dietsch/Getty

As the Senate takes up signature legislation from Democrats to overhaul the electoral process there have been a lot of headlines about Democratic Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona.

Given that the bill had already passed the US House, and Manchin and Sinema have been outspoken in their opposition to ending the filibuster, the attention on the pair is warranted.

However, as Democrats’ failure to pass the sweeping bill and get rid of the filibuster became official Tuesday when Republicans blocked a motion to begin debate with 50 votes, the attention has begun to turn to President Biden and Democrats in general.

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For the past six months, Democrats have been united. Biden was in the White House and his party governed the Congress by the slimmest of margins. While this meant that very little could get passed without Republican support, the truth is that progressives were vocal about being pleasantly surprised at some of the proposals coming out of the White House. With three bills in particular ― relating to COVID, infrastructure, and families — the federal government would spend an unprecedented amount of money. Some even said it would rewrite the social contract with American citizens.

Beyond these price tag items, Biden endorsed progressive actions on a host of issues in the early days, from gun control to racial justice to climate change and, yes, voting rights.

However, this is the week when all of the progressive dreams came back down to the reality that very little will end up getting done.

Yes, progressives can blame Republicans, given that not a single one has voted in favor of even having a debate on election reform. This bill, H.R. 1 does a lot of things including requiring presidential candidates to disclose their tax returns, making Election Day a federal holiday, and mandating that states offer early voting, among other provisions.

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Yes, progressives can blame Sinema and Manchin. At the moment it takes 60 votes to avoid a Senate filibuster on a non-spending bill, but it only takes 50 votes for Democrats to scrap the filibuster altogether (along with the tie-breaking vote from Vice President Harris.) Sinema and Manchin want to keep the filibuster in place.

But now there are also signs that liberals are starting to blame Biden for not doing enough. “I have reached my WTF moment with Biden on this,” wrote Ezra Levin, founder of the progressive group Indivisible, on Twitter. Obama did a live debate with House GOP on the [Affordable Care Act]. Clinton gave 18 speeches on NAFTA and deputized [then vice president Al] Gore to debate Ross Perot on it. [Donald] Trump and [George W.] Bush were all tax cuts all the time. Where is Biden on saving our democracy??”

It is true that while Biden put Harris in charge of the effort, she hasn’t publicly leaned on Senators to pass the bill, especially Republicans. Yes, Biden and Harris knew the bill was probably dead on arrival in the Senate, but they didn’t lift a finger to change that reality either.

For now, however, Democrats in the Senate have not turned on their own, at least on this issue. The focus Tuesday was on whether all Democrats, including Sinema and Manchin could simply vote to advance debate on the measure, which they did. The vote failed, but it allows Democrats to say they were united in support of the bill (though we’ll never know if they would have voted for it in the end). So instead of all the landmark progressive bills that were supposed to “save democracy” from Republican states rewriting voting laws, all progressives will get now is messaging for the midterm elections: Democrats wanted to save Democracy and Republicans didn’t.

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Hardly inspiring stuff.

But again, this isn’t only about the voting rights bill. If Manchin and Sinema continue to defend the filibuster and Biden continues not to spend any political capital on getting Republican support for his agenda, these two years of Democratic control will look like a missed opportunity.


James Pindell can be reached at james.pindell@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell.