Column: Democrats can do more, and take credit for more, before the midterms

Joe Manchin speaking to reporters
Hand the pen to Joe Manchin. Please.
(J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press)

Just give Joe the pen.

Not Joe Biden. He’s got his, and he’ll sign any bill Congress sends him. To get Congress moving, we need Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-Trump Country).

The West Virginian has wielded a figurative veto pen for months, so replace it and let him write the revised Build Back Better bill and election law reforms that he could vote for. Take what Manchin will give you, Democrats, or next year you’ll get nothing from Mitch McConnell, the once and perhaps future Senate majority leader.

Opinion Columnist

Jackie Calmes

Jackie Calmes brings a critical eye to the national political scene. She has decades of experience covering the White House and Congress.

Take it from Rep. James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, the third-ranking House Democratic leader: “Let’s concentrate on the glass being half full, and we still got time to try to get the glass filled up the rest of the way.”

That’s only Step One in the Democratic Party recovery project that I’m proposing.

Biden’s approval rating needs to improve to avert a wipeout, and history’s midterm jinx for a president’s party is hard to escape. Still, it’s not too late for Democrats to salvage their prospects for November’s midterm elections.


Going into the new year, my perspective is pretty gloomy. What to watch for: the Jan. 6 investigation, midterm elections and a radicalized Supreme Court.

A lot can and will happen in nine months. After all, Republicans were expected to lose House seats in 2020, given Donald Trump’s unpopularity, and instead won enough to nearly capture a majority. Redistricting in the states hasn’t been the disaster that Democrats feared, thanks to court rulings against the most partisan Republican maps and to Democrats’ own gerrymandering in a few states.

They could get lucky: Omicron could retreat. Pandemic-induced inflation could cool off, allowing voters to focus on the growing economy and higher wages. By fall, schools could be operating normally.

And Republicans could defeat themselves. Trump is roiling primary races, promoting election-denying loyalists over candidates who’d have more appeal to general-election voters. He and other party extremists continue to incite controversies that, with Democrats’ help, could scare the daylights out of fence-sitting voters: Do they really want these right-wing nutjobs running Congress?

The Democrats’ fragile Senate majority, frustrating as it is for passing legislation, is crucial and powerful for confirming federal judges.

But Democrats can’t count on luck. It could just as well go the other way. They must unite and reverse their voters’ demoralization, to help the party retain its majority in the Senate majority, if not the House. Senate control is essential to Biden’s continued rebalancing of federal courts.

Speaking of the courts, Biden should quickly name, and Senate Democrats confirm, the first Black woman to the Supreme Court, to replace Justice Stephen G. Breyer. That won’t change the likelihood that the Supreme Court will effectively overturn a half-century-old abortion right by June. Still, both events can be used to galvanize Democratic voters around the importance of their ballots to the actions of the judiciary; Republicans have effectively used courts as a political issue for years.

More broadly, Democrats must start by addressing their self-inflicted damage: Fight with Republicans instead of each other. Replace the incessant headlines about infighting over Biden’s Build Back Better package by uniting over a pared-down version of the $2-trillion package of domestic investments that Manchin and Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema blocked last year by joining Republicans in opposition.

Manchin lately has outlined what an acceptable BBB-Lite would look like. More than $500 billion for climate change initiatives. Universal pre-K. Child-care subsidies. Aid to help more working families get health insurance under the Affordable Care Act. Expanded Medicaid in states that limit it. Tax increases on corporations and wealthy Americans to offset the costs. Though Manchin has opposed extending last year’s expanded child tax credit, he suggested last week to a West Virginia radio host he could support a credit more targeted to lower-income households.

The president has had his wins and losses, but the big story is not about him. And it is not a pleasant tale.

Let him write the bill. While some progressives would balk, increasingly others are joining a new “don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good” caucus.

The same goes for election law reforms: Let Joe lead, now that he and Sinema killed Democrats’ broader voting rights legislation by refusing to exempt it from a Senate filibuster. Manchin told his radio interviewer that his priority is “fixing the problems” exposed on Jan. 6, 2021, when Trump accomplices sought to block Congress’ certification of Biden’s election by exploiting the ambiguous 1887 Electoral Count Act.

He’s working with a bipartisan group of senators to clarify that law and significantly raise the thresholds for Congress to reject states’ electoral votes, and to make it a felony to threaten election workers. Trump has supercharged such efforts by his false claim in recent days that the 135-year-old law empowered Vice President Mike Pence to throw out electoral votes for Biden.

This parliamentary trick has mostly been used to thwart anti-slavery, anti-lynching and civil rights bills. Why are some Democrats defending this tradition?

Perhaps Manchin can persuade his Republican pals to add provisions from the dead voting rights bills. In any case, legislation aside, Democrats and Biden must do more to take the offensive against Republicans’ anti-democratic moves at the local level. Campaign prominently for Democrats seeking local and state offices against election-deniers. Enlist nonpartisan business leaders to speak out. Embrace the work of the House’s Jan. 6 committee, whose public hearings and ultimate report later this year promise to document democracy’s close call.

Meanwhile, Democrats, boast more about what you’ve already have done: ongoing pandemic relief, a landmark infrastructure initiative and a record number of federal judges confirmed for a president’s first year.