Right now the cool kids in Democratic politics don’t like Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema. The feeling is that the two of them are basically holding up progress on the Biden agenda by not being willing to kill the legislative filibuster or reform it in any way to push legislation through without Republican votes. They would say that infrastructure, voting rights, a higher minimum wage, and many other priorities are basically being vetoed by a bad faith Republican leadership who are likely to just eliminate the filibuster whenever it becomes convenient for them. They also say there would not be much political price for pushing through popular Democratic initiatives, but there could be a price to failure. Neither of these two Senators would do well right now with activist Twitter, but then again, neither did 2019 Joe Biden.
Since neither of them is really doing a great job putting forward a great case for their position in public though, I decided to give it a stab and see if I could make a cohesive argument for them. What I found was a long term argument that would probably not convert over most Democratic activists, but probably will end up being proven at least partially right five decades ago. Below is the basic line of thinking I came up with for their position on both the filibuster and the future direction of the party.
1. Are there 48 votes to end the filibuster? One of the great assumptions in this fight is that there are 48 other Democrats ready to end the filibuster. Do we know that though. It is certainly in Manchin’s political interests to fight the party on this issue if he wants to win in West Virginia, and probably in Sinema’s in Arizona too. Most other Senators are likely stay quiet on the matter though until faced with an up or down vote. There was an assumption that Manchin and Sinema were holding up the $15/hour minimum wage bill, until it was brought up for a vote and had only 42 votes for it. It seems likely other Democrats may at least have reservations on this matter, and might be wobbly. They may not be the only hurdles here.
2. The Democratic Party both represents a majority and is teetering on electoral ruin. President Biden won the 2020 Election by 7 million plus votes, a margin that JFK in 1960, Nixon in 1968, Carter in 1976, Gore or Bush in 2000, Bush in 2004, Obama in 2012, and especially Clinton in 2016 would have killed for. The result was that if Trump had done 50,000 votes better in Wisconsin, Arizona, and Georgia, he would have won again anyway, losing by 7 million votes. Biden’s big win netted a 50-50 Senate, and a single digit House Majority. The Democrats have won every presidential popular vote but one since the Cold War, which has won them five of eight Presidential races, but produced Republican rule in the House for 20 of 30 years, and most of 17 of 30 years in the Senate. Democrats might get a majority of the votes, but they sure as hell don’t win a majority of districts and states. Democrats don’t win that often for the majority they have, and they have to thread the needle with the Manchins of the world when they do. There is no major electoral reforms coming on the horizon that will change this, so Democrats need to understand we’re at a disadvantage.
3. These Senators have to run competitive elections every six years, most don’t. Unlike most of their colleagues, Manchin and Sinema know they’ll never have an easy election again. Incumbency doesn’t make swing states or “red” states much easier. The factors that make point two true run straight into their faces every time they run. Being in agreement with online activists probably is bringing in the swing voters they need. If they’re seen as “partisan” Democrats, they probably lose, as Democrats pay a bigger price for appearing to be more partisan. While probably 80% of Senators have to spend more time concerned about losing a primary, they are two of the few that know any opponent from their left flank would likely be unelectable. Sure, they take hits within their party for moderating, but they’ve seen the price of going the other way in states that aren’t blue.
4. The demographics suggest Democratic minorities in the Senate for decades to come. America’s population is growing less and less white. That diversity is not evenly spread though. In just over 15 years, half the population will live in eight states. Since the growth in a more diverse population is almost entirely in those states, you have to consider a very scary likelihood- the majority of the states will be getting older, whiter, and if current voting trends hold, less Democratic. If Democratic messaging stays along it’s current course, and I believe it will, Democratic Senate candidates will be swimming up hill in nearly 80 Senate races. That is likely to mean the Democrats will be in the minority in the Senate more often than not. This also means Democrats will be the party more likely to use the filibuster to maintain a relevant voice in the process. They may regret killing the procedure if that’s the case.
5. These Senators probably believe the Democratic Party needs to moderate to remain viable. Manchin and Sinema are certainly more moderate than the Elizabeth Warrens of the world. It is reasonable to assume that they believe it is in the Democratic Party’s interests to moderate, for all of the reasons listed above. Keeping the filibuster in place would seem to force both sides to negotiate a more moderate product that passes. There is an argument that the threat of more passing in a majority-rule Senate would force more good faith negotiation, but it would be on the majority’s terms. If you believe the current Democratic messaging is likely to produce decades of Republican majorities, it makes sense that you would try to alter the direction of your party. You can argue their method, but I don’t doubt their goal.
If your belief is that the Democratic Party’s biggest problem moving forward is Republican state governments making it harder to vote, and stopping that makes Democratic victories more likely, of course you’d disregard the points above. You might even disagree with them on the grounds that Democrats won in 2020 and should not need Mitch McConnell’s approval to govern. If that’s your position, it probably makes sense to steamroll the filibuster and pass as much stuff as you can- but how much that actually is would be questionable when you only have 50 Democratic Senators, so beware.
Perhaps though your feeling is that the flaws of the Democratic Party run deeper. The party’s reliance on “the rising electorate” make future victories in our federal system, where there is no national election, but 50 state elections, much more difficult. If Democrats are likely to lose regardless of new voting laws, you’re likely to want to change the direction of the party. Perhaps you have questions about the impact of new state election laws, and their ultimate impact on future elections. If you think the electoral problems of the Democratic Party are much deeper than whether they pass HR1 or the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, you might see some wisdom in Sinema and Manchin’s position. It really does come down to whether you think Democrats or Republicans are the biggest problem facing Democrats in the future. If I were guessing, Manchin and Sinema think the future of the party isn’t bright. An unequally distributed electorate, a likely deteriorating Democratic base, and the already lost courts have made them make peace with this view.
In reality, it’s probably not so cut and dry either way, and a case can be made that Democrats should simply do whatever makes Joe Biden have the easiest time winning re-election, to prevent a dramatic backslide for democracy under a Trump 2.0 or Trump-lite Presidency in 2025. While the party’s future prospects might be questionable, it probably goes without saying that the country is best off not going through that again. The current version of the GOP is likely in its final 15 years or so of existence, and while we don’t know what they will become either, running out as much clock on them as possible is good. In the end though, Democrats are best off at least considering what their long term prospects are, and whether or not they will be the ones needing the filibuster. Ultimately though, they can’t afford to give up democracy now based on those concerns.