Today’s Edition: A necessary loss.

October 21, 2021

          To the surprise of no one, all fifty Senate Republicans voted against allowing debate on the merits of the Freedom to Vote Act. It was a necessary loss. By demanding that Republicans take a stand on voting rights, Republicans were forced to admit that the existence of their party is dependent on voter suppression. Although the result is disappointing for Democrats, the loss was strategic. Senator Schumer knew that the vote would fail. The point of the futile vote was to expose the anti-democratic core of the Republican Party—just as civil rights advocates in the 1960s engaged in acts of civil disobedience to expose the evil of Jim Crow laws. In the process of being arrested and beaten for seeking a seat at lunch counter or on a bus, the civil rights advocates changed the hearts and minds of the American people. That change was the foundation for the greatest advance in civil rights in a century.  

          So, too, with today’s defeat of the motion to debate the Freedom to Vote Act. There is no longer any room for debate over whether “moderate” or “good” Republicans will support democracy. They will not. Today’s vote made that fact plain for all to see.  Senators Manchin and Sinema no longer have a good faith basis for defending the filibuster. Although the loss may not change their minds, the repeated display of depravity by Senate Republicans will change the hearts and minds of enough Americans to propel us to victory. When that victory will be achieved is uncertain, but that it will be achieved is beyond doubt.

          Congressional Democrats are not giving up on their effort to pass voting rights legislation this year. Good for them. Some believe that today’s loss will convince Manchin and Sinema to support a carve-out in the filibuster rule for voting rights. I hope it has that effect, but I doubt that it will. (I dearly hope I am wrong.) Unless Manchin and Sinema relent in their exaltation of a Senate procedural rule above the civil rights of all Americans, voting reform will remain unattainable until 2022 or 2024, at the earliest.

          Some respected commentators have suggested that the failure to pass voting rights reform in 2021 will inevitably lead to Democratic defeats in 2022 and 2024. Such suggestions are wrong and dangerous. They are wrong because Democrats can overcome voter suppression by registering some of the 80 million eligible Americans who failed to register in 2020 and by motivating voter turnout among low-propensity voters. Predictions of disaster are dangerous because they can create a self-defeating dynamic in which Democrats give up the fight because they have been told the situation is hopeless.

          The situation is not hopeless, and we should not let anyone tell us otherwise. Moreover, we must not exaggerate the potential effects of voter suppression in the face of a determined electorate. Let me be clear in the following discussion: Voter suppression laws are wrong and undoubtedly disenfranchise some Americans. The question is how many voters are actually deterred given the countermeasures adopted by Democrats. A recent study published in the highly regarded Quarterly Journal of Economics provides strong evidence that restrictive voter ID laws do not depress voter registration or voter turnout. The article is behind a paywall, but the abstract is worth reading. See Quarterly Journal of Economics, “Strict ID Laws Don’t Stop Voters: Evidence from a U.S. Nationwide Panel, 2008–2018*.”

          The study was based on a huge dataset (1.6 billion observations) over a decade. The authors controlled for “state, year, and voter fixed effects.”  (I understand from an economist who recommended the article that this is the most comprehensive study ever published on the effects of voter ID restrictions.) The authors conclude as follows:

          [W]e find that [restrictive voter ID] laws have no negative effect on registration or turnout, overall or for any group defined by race, gender, age, or party affiliation.

          A logical question raised by the above conclusion is whether the political party targeted by voter suppression was able to offset the negative effects of the laws by doing more to motivate turnout. The authors considered that question, and answered it as follows:

          [T]he likelihood that nonwhite voters were contacted by a campaign increases by 4.7 percentage points, suggesting that parties’ mobilization might have offset modest effects of the laws on the participation of ethnic minorities.

          In other words, when minorities are targeted by voter suppression laws, the likelihood that those voters were contacted by a campaign organization increases by 4.7 percentage points. The authors surmise that the increased outreach “might have offset” the limited effects of the restrictive voter ID laws. To be clear, this study examined only one type of voter suppression law and its conclusions may not apply to other forms of suppression.

          Here is my point: Do not despair if Democrats are unable to pass voter protection legislation this year. The evidence in the above study suggests that the effects of voter suppression laws may not be as large as expected and can be offset by greater efforts to “get out the vote.” We can do that! Indeed, we did it in 2018 and 2020. There is no reason we cannot do it again in 2022 and 2024.

Senator Sinema objects to raising the corporate income tax to pay for the Build Back Better reconciliation package.

          Take this story with a grain of salt because it involves reading the mind of the “Greta Garbo of the Senate,” Kyrsten Sinema. According to reports on Wednesday, Sinema is objecting to raising taxes on corporations or wealthy individuals. If true, that would lay waste to the Build Back Better agenda and likely cause a revolt against the infrastructure bill. See Politico, “Sinema blows up Dems' plans to tax high earners, corporations.” But Sinema has not shared her views with her colleagues in the Senate, so the reports are leaking from the White House. Oh, and she objects to allowing the government to negotiate prescription drug prices for Medicare recipients, which is another source of funding for the reconciliation package.

          Press reports continue to describe Sinema as a “moderate” or a “centrist.” She is neither. There is nothing ideological in her positions. She is merely doing the bidding of the major corporate donors who stand between her and defeat in 2024. She is not going to be the Democratic nominee for her seat in 2024, so she must have other plans. Let’s hope those plans involve wine tasting, triathlons, and teaching, but not politics.

Colin Powell.

          Many readers objected to my description of Colin Powell as a “mensch” in yesterday’s newsletter. Several noted that his presentation to the UN Security Council that led to the invasion of Iraq caused the deaths of millions of people. Those readers said that expressing his “regret” for presenting false intelligence was an inadequate response. Others suggested that he helped cover up the Mi Lai Massacre, though the historical record seems to indicate that he had only peripheral contact with the investigation. Still others said that his service in Vietnam and his command positions in the U.S. military resulted in the deaths of civilians in conflict zones across the globe. I don’t agree with these criticisms of Powell. When we ask people to serve in the military, we cannot blame them for carrying out the foreign policy and military policy of the United States. But I rarely receive such strong pushback from readers on my commentary, so I share that reaction in the interest of transparency.

Concluding Thoughts.

          Steel yourselves for a deluge of stories predicting doom for Democrats because of the failure to pass voting rights protections. Such stories presume that we are powerless to react to new challenges. That assumption is both dangerous and insulting. Such stories also assume that “Republicans” are a monolithic bloc of single-issue voters. They are not. “Republicans” by themselves are impotent; they need persuadable independents if they have any hope of winning elections. The GOP’s anti-vax, anti-democracy, anti-science, anti-education, anti-immigrant, undying-loyalty to a coup-plotter platform is unattractive to the majority of independents. Voter suppression is real and will disenfranchise some voters. But we are not powerless. We control our fate. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

          Talk to you tomorrow!