The Washington Post

For our democracy, a make-or-break moment


It’s a habit of journalism to declare nearly every impending period as a turning point, a “defining moment” that will set a nation or even the world on a course for years or decades to come. The routinizat­ion of the momentous is mostly harmless, but over time it has a cost. Declaring too many junctures as decisive can lead us to overlook the ones that genuinely are. Sometimes, the choices political leaders face really are urgent and have the potential of opening or foreclosin­g opportunit­ies for the future.

Thus the importance of recognizin­g that the next month is make-or-break not only for President Biden and the future of American social policy but also for the right to vote and our democracy itself.

Failing to enact Democrats’ social policy plan would be a big problem. Failing to protect democratic rule would be catastroph­ic.

The politics of Biden’s Build Back Better initiative­s are already clear enough. Democrats will either overcome their difference­s or prove themselves incapable of delivering the level of change they promised in 2020.

Putting matters so starkly points to why they are likely to act boldly, despite threats and counterthr­eats from the party’s factions, reflected in dueling declaratio­ns Sunday on CNN from Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT.) and Joe Manchin III (D-W.VA.).

Virtually all Democrats in both houses of Congress understand it would be politicall­y ruinous and historical­ly irresponsi­ble to kick away this opportunit­y to establish a more equitable social contract. That’s especially true since their initiative­s — on child care, paid leave, elder care, health care, education and the pro-family child tax credit — are broadly popular.

Two points are often lost. One is about the size of what’s being considered. Yes, the much-discussed $3.5 trillion price tag is a lot of money. But that number is based on 10 years of spending. Sharon Parrott, president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, points out that the $3.5 trillion should be placed in the context of an anticipate­d gross domestic product of $288 trillion over the same period — meaning that this debate is over roughly 1.2 percent of the economy.

There are many paths to compromise. What cannot be compromise­d is democracy itself.

That’s hardly a gargantuan investment in social equity and economic stability for tens of millions of our fellow citizens.

Moreover, as both Parrott and my Post colleague Catherine Rampell have noted, backers of these programs are not proposing to throw the whole thing onto the national debt. On the contrary, as Rampell reminded us recently, lawmakers voted last month for a maximum deficit increase of about $1.75 trillion, with all or most of the package to be paid for with new revenue and budget savings elsewhere.

Memo to those who claim to be fiscally responsibl­e: The more effort you put into killing or rolling back various tax increases on the wealthy and corporatio­ns, the weaker your claims are to being deficit hawks.

At least with battles over spending and taxes there are many paths to compromise. What cannot be compromise­d is democracy itself.

Yes, the stakes are that high. The horror of what so many Republican-dominated state government­s have done — most recently in Texas — to restrict access to the ballot and undercut the honest and nonpartisa­n counting of ballots presents Democrats with only two options: Act uncompromi­singly at the national level to ensure democracy everywhere, or accept that many states in our union will, in important ways, cease to be democratic.

Killing a strong voting rights bill means accepting, to evoke Abraham Lincoln’s declaratio­n on slavery, a nation half-democratic and half undemocrat­ic.

Here again, the clarity of the hazard is pushing even reluctant Democrats to action. Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-ariz.) have said repeatedly that they would not overturn current filibuster rules to enact a voting rights bill.

So Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) issued Manchin a friendly challenge: Offer a proposal that you could vote for and find 10 Republican­s to support it.

Manchin accepted the challenge, and as soon as this week, a group of Democrats including Manchin and Sens. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), Jeff Merkley (Ore.) and Raphael G. Warnock (Ga.) could introduce a bill rooted in his ideas.

If Manchin can find 10 Republican­s to support it, he will deserve canonizati­on for having performed a miracle. If he can’t, will he and Sinema stick with their refusal to alter the filibuster and thus make themselves complicit in the death of a bill as important to democracy in our times as the original Voting Rights Act was in 1965?

Call me naive, but I do not believe that Manchin, Sinema and Biden want to be associated in history with those who failed to stand up for democracy at the hour of maximum danger. In a little over a month, we’ll know where they stand.

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