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OPINION

Mitch McConnell is polishing his masterwork — destroying voting rights

As the Senate minority leader tries to thwart democracy, President Biden dithers on keeping his promise to protect it.

Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell at the Capitol on Tuesday.Al Drago/NYT

When historians search for clues about who killed democracy, they’ll find Mitch McConnell’s fingerprints all over the corpse.

Under the Senate minority leader’s direction, not a single Republican voted Wednesday to allow debate on the Freedom to Vote Act. Let’s be clear. This wasn’t a vote on the bill itself, which would strengthen voting rights and state-run election systems. What the GOP stifled was a procedural move to even permit its discussion on the Senate floor.

“The Senate is designed to stop bad ideas and purely partisan proposals while helping truly necessary and bipartisan bills become law,” McConnell said in a blatantly mendacious statement a week before the vote. “As we have shown in the recent past, the Senate is fully capable of making law in this area when actual issues need actual solutions and actual bipartisan work occurs. By contrast, there is nothing necessary or bipartisan about this naked power grab, so it will continue to go nowhere.”

For most of this year, voting access has been vigorously attacked in numerous Republican-led state legislatures, most prominently in Florida, Georgia, and Texas. What McConnell considers federal overreach is a critical attempt to stop voter suppression tactics that Stacey Abrams, founder of Fair Fight, has dubbed “Jim Crow 2.0.”

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If voting rights protections go nowhere, so does any semblance of democracy.

That plays into McConnell’s plans. When I hear his name I often recall what former President Obama wrote about the longtime senator from Kentucky in “A Promised Land,” his most recent memoir. He described McConnell as someone with “no close friends even in his own caucus,” a man who “showed no aptitude for schmoozing, backslapping, or rousing oratory.”

Then the former president, who during his White House tenure had regular run-ins with McConnell, drops the mic: “What McConnell lacked in charisma or interest in policy he more than made up for in discipline, shrewdness, and shamelessness — all of which he employed in the single-minded and dispassionate pursuit of power.”

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Pursuing and consolidating that power is all that concerns McConnell. He ignores the Constitution and focuses only on his own destructive goals. What impact his actions have on this country or its citizens’ rights never seems to cross a mind that never stops scheming.

In May, McConnell said “100 percent of our focus is on stopping this new administration,” meaning the Biden presidency. During two Democratic presidencies, McConnell has hardened the GOP into the party of obstructionism. At the top of his list is blocking any expansion or protection of voting rights.

While marking the centennial of the Tulsa Race Massacre in June, President Biden called the right to vote “precious” and pledged to “fight like heck with every tool at my disposal” to protect it. So far, Biden has been more talk than action. He’s gotten behind the modest Freedom to Vote Act in the misguided belief that McConnell will back it, rather than fight for the more expansive For the People Act.

And Biden keeps clinging to the filibuster as if it’s a life preserver instead of an anchor that will sink his agenda. He needs to dispose of whatever romantic “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” notions allow him to believe he can redeem the irredeemable filibuster, and push to get rid of it.

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For weeks, the president has been tied up trying to convince fellow Democrats Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona to back his wide-ranging infrastructure and social safety net bills. He should be exerting the same effort to get them onboard to abolish the filibuster so that crucial parts of his agenda can pass, including voting rights legislation. Every day that Biden fails to do so he allows McConnell’s existential threats to metastasize.

Not to mention that Biden is also letting down the Black and brown voters who put him in the White House and secured a slim Democratic majority in the Senate. Again, voters of color did their part, and so far they’ve been left with hollow promises.

Nothing less than our democracy is on the line, but Biden is dithering under the false belief that he can find common ground with Republicans. McConnell is unequivocal. He doesn’t want compromise; he wants capitulation.

McConnell excels at keeping his cowardly minions in line, despite Manchin’s hoary claim that he could find “10 good” Republicans to back voting rights legislation. That myth should be buried. What this nation really needs now is one courageous Democratic president willing to defy McConnell and save democracy.


Renée Graham can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.