IIn 1963, when newly sworn-in Lyndon Baines Johnson was advised against using his limited political capital on the controversial issue of voting and civil rights for African Americans, he replied, “Well, what the hell is the presidency for?”
The United States is once again approaching a crucial decision point about the most fundamental right of all in a democracy: the right to vote. The result will be the biggest advance since the historic LBJ voting and civil rights laws of 1964 and 1965, or the biggest setback since the end of Reconstruction and the beginning of Jim Crow in the 1870s.
The deciding factor will be President Joe Biden.
On one side are the Republicans, who control the majority of state legislatures and are using false claims of voter fraud to enact a flood of voting restrictions on everything from early voting and voting by mail to voter IDs. They also plan to make a gerrymander on their way back to a majority in the US House of Representatives.
After losing the Senate and the presidency, they are determined to regain power by manipulating the rules against Democrats, who are disproportionately black and brown voters. As a lawyer for the Arizona Republican Party put it bluntly Before the Supreme Court, without such restrictions, Republicans are “at a competitive disadvantage relative to Democrats.”
On the other side are Congressional Democrats, advancing on the most significant democratic reform legislation since LBJ: a Law of 791 pages for the people, establishing national standards for federal elections.
The proposed law requires automatic registration of new voters, voting by mail and at least 15 days of early voting. It bans restrictive voter identification laws and purges of voter lists, changes that studies suggest would increase voter turnout, especially of racial minorities. It also requires congressional redistricting to be done by independent commissions and creates a public funding system for Congressional campaigns.
The legislation passed through the House last week, in a party line vote. The showdown will take place in the Senate, where Republicans are determined to end it. Although Democrats have a very small majority, the bill stands no chance unless Democrats can overcome two major hurdles.
The first is filibuster, which requires 60 votes to pass regular legislation. In particular, obstructionism is not in the constitution and not even in the law. It’s a rule that has historically been used against civil rights and voting rights bills, as it was in the 1960s when LBJ narrowly edged it out.
Democrats can, and must, finally end the filibuster now, with their 51-vote majority.
But if they try, they face a second hurdle. Two Democrats, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, have said they will not vote to end filibuster, presumably because they want to preserve their centrist image and attract Republicans in their states. Some other Democrats are lukewarm on the idea.
Ok, I’m sorry. The stakes are high. If Democrats don’t enact the For the People Act, Republicans will roll back voting rights for decades. There is no excuse for Manchin and Sinema or any other Senate Democrat to allow Republicans to turn America back to Jim Crow.
And there is no reason why Biden should leave them. It is time for you to assert the kind of leadership that LBJ affirmed more than half a century ago on voting and civil rights.
Johnson used all the tools at his disposal, described from journalist Mary McGrory as “an incredible and potent mix of persuasion, harassment, flattery, threats, reminders of past favors and future advantages.”
He warned Georgia Senator Richard Russell, a dedicated segregationist: “Dick, I love you and I owe you one. But … I’m going to run you over if you challenge me on this civil rights bill. “He demanded that his allies join him in lobbying the redoubts. Senator Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota, later Johnson’s vice president, remembered: “The president grabbed my shoulder and almost broke my arm.”
Historians say Johnson’s pestering, bribery and threats may have turned the votes of nearly a dozen senators, breaking the longest filibuster in history and clearing the way for passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act. 1965.
Once again, we find ourselves at a crucial juncture for civil rights and voting rights that could shape America for half a century or more. Joe Biden is not LBJ, and the times are different than they were in the mid-1960s. But the stakes are high.
Biden must wield the power of the presidency to bring senators in line with the nation’s broader goals. Otherwise, as LBJ asked, “what the heck is the presidency for?”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism