Today’s Edition: Not the “world’s greatest deliberative body.”

June 22, 2021

          On Tuesday, the evil of the filibuster will be laid bare. Senate Republicans will use the filibuster to prevent the Senate from debating whether the Senate should enact voting rights reform. See Talking Points Memo, “Schumer Hammers That Republicans Are Gearing Up To Block All Debate On Major Voting Bill.” The vote on Tuesday will not address the merits of the For the People Act or the John Lewis Voting Rights Act but only the question of whether the “world’s greatest deliberative body” can deliberate. The answer is, “No,” because Senate Republicans will use the filibuster to prevent those bills from making their way to the Senate floor for substantive debate. As the nation convulses with claims of voter fraud and watches as hundreds of voter suppression bills course their way through state legislatures, the Senate cannot rouse itself to debate the future of our democracy because of an arcane rule. Democracy may go down in flames, but the filibuster will be protected from harm.

          Schumer’s doomed effort is maddening because it is not certain that all members of the Democratic caucus will support the procedural vote to allow debate. The sometimes Democrat and full-time diva aka Joe Manchin is wringing his hands over whether to allow debate. Before allowing debate, Manchin wants assurances from real Democrats that they will support his hypothetical bill that will be killed by the very filibuster that Manchin supports.  See Politico, “Manchin holds out until last minute on elections vote.” (“He wants assurances that the Senate will amend the existing elections bill before he votes to advance it.”) In other words, Manchin wants Democrats to support his version of the bill before allowing debate on any version of the bill. It must be nice to be king.

          Manchin is playing his 15-minutes of fame for all it is worth. On Monday, he managed to draw an endorsement from former President Barack Obama for his slimmed-down version of the voter protection bills. See The Guardian, “Obama backs Manchin’s voting rights compromise before crucial Senate vote.” In his statement on Monday, President Obama was his usual eloquent self. He said, in part,

          I do want folks who may not be paying close attention to what’s happening . . .  to understand the stakes involved here, and why this debate is so vitally important to the future of our country. Around the world we’ve seen once-vibrant democracies go in reverse. It is happening in other places around the world and these impulses have crept into the United States . . . We are not immune from some of these efforts to weaken our democracy.

          Let’s hope that President Obama’s endorsement sates Manchin’s vanity so that the 50 members of the Democratic caucus in the Senate will vote unanimously to allow debate—which will be ten votes short of allowing debate. There is nothing about that scenario that “protects the rights of the minority”—as the filibuster is allegedly intended to do.

          One more comment about Senator Manchin before moving on to other news items. His minimalist proposals are inconsistent in their sweep. On the For the People Act, he supports a far-reaching reform—non-partisan commissions to determine boundaries for congressional districts.  If that were the only provision of H.R.1 that passes, it would be a significant step forward. The story is different on the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. Manchin wants to extend the pre-clearance process to all 50 states, not merely those that have demonstrated patterns of discrimination. Good. But he also wants to neuter the power of DOJ consent decrees against jurisdictions that are currently engaged in discriminatory practices. Without the coercive effect of consent decrees, the John Lewis Voting Rights Act will be ineffective in protecting voters from discrimination under existing law. See Talking Points Memo, “Manchin’s Proposed Changes To The John Lewis Voting Rights Act Would Gut The Bill.”

          Schumer needs to drive the process to its logical conclusion—force all 50 Senate Republicans to vote against debate on voter protection bills. The Senate can then take its two summer vacations (4th of July and August) while grass roots groups like Indivisible try to pressure those Senators who are still willing to show their faces in public. Above all else, remember that tomorrow’s loss will not be the end of the process. Voters will have the opportunity in 2022 and 2024 to make their voices heard. I acknowledge that the vote on Tuesday and the inaction for the remainder of the year will be discouraging, but we must not give in to defeatism. We are going to win, and Republicans are going to lose everything. It is only a matter of time.

What’s with “Italygate”?

          The topic of “Italygate” is trending in the news. Why? And why does it matter? The short answer is that it matters because it is a conspiracy theory that gained traction in the White House, DOJ, and GOP in the waning days of the Trump administration. In short, the theory asserts that Italy had a satellite that was secretly changing voting machine ballots from Trump to Biden. That ludicrous theory made its way almost directly from the questionable sources to a Mar-a-Lago party to the White House via Chief of Staff Mark Meadows to the DOJ for investigation. After the DOJ began “investigating” the ridiculous theory, right-wing conspiracy website began promoting the falsehood. Although I advise against it, a quick internet search will yield hundreds of websites and social media posts that assert that Italy helped Biden steal the 2020 election.

          The sordid facts of how the theory was hatched and gained circulation is the subject of outstanding reporting from Talking Points Memo and the Washington Post. See Talking Points Memo, “ItalyGate Is The Crown Jewel Of Big Lie Conspiracies. And It Just Got A Lot Wilder.” The underlying facts are too complicated to explain here, but if you want to understand just how ludicrous the story is, take a look at the TPM story.

          Why does this matter? Because the unfounded belief that the election was stolen has worked its way into the GOP’s DNA. As more states consider Arizona-style audits, GOP-controlled legislatures “know” that the election was stolen but can’t explain how an Italian satellite did so and don’t know that the theory was concocted by hucksters.

Tucker Carlson and the problem of “off the record” sources in journalism.

          You may have heard about or read the NYTimes story in which Ben Smith says that Fox News personality Tucker Carlson is a ubiquitous “off the record source” for sixteen respectable journalists. NYTimes, “Tucker Carlson Calls Journalists ‘Animals.’ He’s Also Their Best Source.” (“He’s the go-to guy for sometimes-unflattering stories about Donald J. Trump and for coverage of the internal politics of Fox News (not to mention stories about Mr. Carlson himself.”) Does that fact matter to anyone other than journalists who are keeping track of “inside baseball accounts” of journalism? Yes. It matters to you and me, as David Frum explains in The Atlantic, “Why Would Reporters Trust Tucker Carlson?

          Here’s the problem: Carlson is not only a reporter, but he is also in a love-hate personal relationship with Trump. Carlson speaks with Trump regularly and then “leaks” his conversations with Trump to reporters at respectable media outlets. But can Carlson be trusted? Frum imagines the thought process of a journalist for a major media outlet calling Tucker Carlson for confirmation of a story. As described by Frum, the journalist is thinking,

          I know [Carlson] regularly lies to his fans on television, but he would not lie to me on the telephone.

          It is disconcerting to learn that Tucker Carlson has been the source for major media outlets that we expect to tell the truth. But if one of their “confidential sources” is a habitual liar, what does that say about the reliability of their reporting? I hope that Ben Smith’s article provokes hard conversations in newsrooms across the country about whether it is wise to use fellow journalists as “confidential sources”—especially when those journalists have a strained relationship with the truth.

Concluding Thoughts.

          Many readers have leapt to the defense of Merrick Garland in response to my criticism of his placid response to Trump era crimes. The Washington Post published a defense of Garland today. See WaPo, “Garland tries to untangle the Trump legacy at the Justice Department.” The article makes the case that Garland has multiple messes on his plate in the DOJ, which is a massive and unresponsive institution. The article quotes many Garland allies who argue that Garland is protecting the rule of law by not bending the rules to reverse questionable decisions made during the Trump era. If you want to see the best-case defense of Garland’s management of the DOJ, I recommend the article.

          I am unpersuaded. I have explained my reasoning many times, so I will not go on at length. Garland’s approach would be commendable if Biden had succeeded Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush. But Biden succeeded a twice-impeached norm destroyer who has left the DOJ in tatters. At the very least, Garland owes the American people assurances that he cares about potential crimes committed by the former administration and is working behind the scenes to fix the problems at the DOJ. He has failed to do so; instead, he sent surrogates to speak to the Post to make his case for him. That is not enough, proving once again that Merrick Garland is a good man in the wrong job. He still has time to rise to the moment. I sincerely hope he does, for the good of nation—which remains under attack by the forces that unleashed the January 6th Insurrection.

          Talk to you tomorrow!