Over years of following American politics, I’d come to regard Joe Biden as harmless — a back-slapper without strong conviction, given to exaggeration and the occasional outright lie, but no worse than average for a career politician and no threat to the republic. Lately I’ve been wondering if I overestimated him.
His remarks on Tuesday settle the matter. His speech on election law was Trump-level demagoguery, the opposite of what the country needs and should expect of its president.
Biden is pressing for passage of two voting-reform laws. The first — the Freedom to Vote Act — is a compendium of measures to make voting easier. The other — the John Lewis Act — seeks among other things to restore requirements on some states to get federal permission for changes in their voting rules.
Together, they constitute a strong exertion of federal authority over states’ ability to conduct elections. Set aside what the Constitution may or may not require in that regard: Since the elections in question are federal, I see no principled objection. Voting should be as easy as possible, and to the naïve observer, it isn’t obvious why the rules should vary state by state.
Yet there’s a vast difference between advocating for these bills and equating opposition to them as support for “Jim Crow 2.0” and “the end of democracy.” That is exactly what Biden did. It was hyperbole verging on hysteria.
The fate of the republic does not rest on what form of ID is required of people turning up at polling places. Nor does it depend on whether snacks can be served to voters in line, registration is automatic, Election Day is a national holiday, or states offer 15 consecutive days of early voting. These and countless other minutiae vary widely across the democratic world.
In contrast, the fate of the republic might indeed depend on whether the losing side accepts the election result as legitimate. In his response to the 2020 election, Trump overthrew that presumption, and was rightly slammed for it. Now Biden, who promised to unite the nation and repair the damage Trump has wrought, is doing just the same.
If the reform bills fail to pass — as seems all but certain, since the Democrats lack a sufficient majority in the Senate and two of their senators are opposed to suspending the filibuster — Biden’s rhetoric will have laid the groundwork for a truly chilling scenario: When Democrats next lose an election, they will view the result as illegitimate. In a country as closely and bitterly divided as the US, it’s hard to think of a more toxic intervention.
Granted, many Republican states are at least partially rolling back the easing of voting procedures demanded by the pandemic. Calculations, right or wrong, of partisan advantage are presumably influencing these maneuvers. (Does anyone believe Democrats would support more permissive rules if they thought the resulting additional votes would tilt Republican?) The elections of 2020 have been exhaustively investigated and were found to be well conducted, so on this account too the rolling back looks wrong.
Even so, Biden’s account of the new laws was misleading. He singled out Georgia’s new rules, for instance, though they’re more permissive than those of some firmly Democratic states. And he ignored the most important fact of all: A substantial share of the electorate doesn’t trust the 2020 results.
Yes, that last fact is due in large part to Trump’s lies. Still, the point stands: Restoring trust in the electoral system should be an overriding goal of every responsible politician, and above all the president. That means speaking to Republicans as decent fellow citizens. And it means recognizing the trade-off between making voting easier and making it more secure.
Biden is now calling for the filibuster to be set aside so the reform measures can be passed. For any ordinary piece of legislation, this would be unwise, for the reasons the president used to explain when he was a senator in the minority. But a partisan vote to remake election rules would be especially reckless. It’s crucial to lift election procedures above the political fray so they command respect and confidence across the partisan divide.
Representative James Clyburn has reminded people that Congress passed the 15th Amendment, which gave freed slaves the right to vote, over solid partisan resistance. He makes a good point, except this is not 1870. It also isn’t 1965, when the Voting Rights Act outlawed plainly discriminatory rules such as literacy tests. And just to confirm, Joe Manchin isn’t Bull Connor.
In 2022, the principal threat to American democracy is not racist voter suppression but the inability of two raging political tribes to come to terms about anything, including whether the orderly transition of power is still possible.
Biden campaigned as the return-to-normal candidate. He seemed suited to the role, and it’s why he won: His most vital job was going to be to show that elections can be trusted, that people with deep disagreements can still engage constructively and that, once in a while, something can get done. Until this week, he could have been fairly accused of making no great effort to do as he promised. The new charge is that, for political advantage, he’s choosing to deepen the country’s divisions.