If Biden really wants to save America, he must devote 2022 to rallying around voting rights

Biden asserted that he believed history would ultimately view Donald Trump’s four years in office as “an aberrant moment in time.”

“But if we give Donald Trump eight years in the White House, he will forever and fundamentally alter the character of this nation—who we are,” Biden said. “And I cannot stand by and watch that happen.”

In that instance, Biden the candidate was crystal clear about the danger Trump posed to our constitutional republic and his feeling that the country was teetering on the edge.

It was well over a year before Trump spun his Big Lie about 2020 fraud, pressed state election officials and lawmakers to buckle to his will, threatened top officials at the Department of Justice, put the lives of our congressional members and his own vice president at risk, and initiated a slow-motion coup that has captivated the overactive imaginations of roughly two-thirds of Republican voters.

In short, even though Biden now sits in the Oval Office, the threat facing the country today is so much greater than the one he saw as a candidate. Because unlike 2020, a Democratic win in 2024 might be nothing more than a speed bump on the way to the GOP’s fascist takeover of the country.

President Biden and Democrats have dedicated their first year with full control of Congress to pushing through what might still amount to an historic economic agenda. The American Rescue Plan and bipartisan infrastructure law have made massive, sorely needed investments in jobs, our country’s families, and America’s future. The Build Back Better bill, even in whittled-down form, could still serve as a transformational pivot point to the future. But frankly, none of that will matter unless Democrats spend the lion’s share of 2022 doing everything in their conceivable power to shore up the nation’s electoral system and frame the midterms as a choice between sound Democratic leadership and a party bent on functionally destroying our democracy.

As Democratic pollster Cornell Belcher told Pod Save America this week, “I don’t know if we can change the filibuster or not, but I damn sure believe we better go down in fucking flames fighting to get voting rights passed if we want to have a chance of mobilizing our base going into this midterm.”

Belcher pointed out that a sizable part of Biden’s approval problems can be traced back to a double-digit drop among Democratic voters. Since passage of the American Rescue Plan, for instance, Biden’s approval ratings among Democrats have dropped some 13 points, from 90% to 77%, according to Civiqs. Biden is also roughly 10 points below where he was with independents shortly after passage of pandemic relief—from 38% to 28% approval.

But if Democrats aren’t overwhelmingly pleasing their own base, the midterms will undoubtedly be a rout.

In Belcher’s view, whether or not Democrats can actually pass a voting rights bill, they have to die trying, and I think he’s right.

“If it looks like Democrats and the Biden administration are not fighting fucking tooth and nail for voting rights and for police reform, we got no chance,” he said.

“Those young people—not just Black young people, but white young people, brown young people, AAPI young people—they took to the streets about injustice,” Belcher explained of the existential urgency that helped propel Joe Biden into office.

Practically speaking, what this means is that Democrats must pivot very early next year to the voting rights fight alongside constant messaging about Republican extremism on everything from masking and vaxxing to abortion to rigging the electoral system to their Jan. 6 cover up. From a messaging standpoint, an all-hands-on-deck voting rights push allows Democrats to explain to voters how Republicans are both working to suppress voters and, perhaps even more consequentially, writing laws that allow them to overthrow the will of the people if they don’t like the election outcomes. 

Belcher believes Democrats must lean much harder into the conversation around GOP extremism, an assertion with which I wholeheartedly agree.

“They’re seeding chaos, and they’re making America a more dangerous place,” Belcher said of Republicans. “Chaos in our classrooms, school boards; chaos around ‘they’re trying to take away your rights, they’re trying to overthrow our government.’ I think there is a fear piece here that Democrats can make an argument against.”

But voting rights is paramount. In my personal opinion, if Democrats wait until March to start making a big voting rights push, it will be too late. By summer, many voters will have already developed a mindset about whether Democrats have fought hard enough for the things they care about. Plus, when the Supreme Court opinion on abortion drops this summer, it will undoubtedly dominate the political landscape for months in its wake.

Clearing space for voting rights will also require decisive action soon on President Biden’s Build Back Better bill. At some point either this month or very early next year, Democrats will have to call a vote on the families and climate change package and let the chips fall where they may. For now, both Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Speaker Nancy Pelosi say they expect the bill will be done by Christmas.

But what Democrats can absolutely not afford to do is let Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona drag the debate into February of next year. Manchin keeps pushing for a “strategic pause” and, frankly, nothing could be less strategic than pressing pause to appease Manchin. In fact, needing the votes of Manchinema on BBB is exactly why Democrats haven’t truly pushed the voting rights issue thus far—because that debate will likely get contentious given the two senators’ sacred vow to uphold an arcane Senate rule at the expense of American democracy itself. So Democrats must move beyond BBB soon in order to have the space to talk freely and directly about the stakes of inaction, and the role that Manchin and Sinema are playing in helping Republicans doom the republic.

As Belcher noted about all those people who took to the streets in search of justice following the public murder of George Floyd: “They weren’t marching for bridges, roads, and broadband.”

President Biden and Democrats view the Build Back Better package as legacy legislation. But when the history is written, Democrats will be judged first and foremost on whether they managed to save our democracy. After all, if Republicans succeed with the coup they have been orchestrating state by state, the nation’s slide toward fascism will inevitably erase every last remnant of Biden’s legislative legacy.

Candidate Joe Biden saw that threat clearly and decided he couldn’t stand by and watch that happen.

Everything that has made America America is at stake,” Biden said in his announcement.

Biden was right then, and now that he is president, he must rise to meet the urgency of the moment. If he fails to do so, next year’s midterms will set the nation on an exceedingly dangerous course to 2024. And rather than Trump’s tenure being seen as an aberration, it could become the rule.

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