Joe Biden’s “Have You No Shame” speech on voting rights the other day was passionate, powerful, necessary, mostly on target and yet almost entirely useless.

His speech directly addressed and correctly analyzed a critical problem — some would say an existential problem — facing our country, telling a Philadelphia audience: “There’s an unfolding assault taking place in America today, an attempt to suppress and subvert the right to vote and fair and free elections. An assault on democracy, an assault on liberty, an assault on who we are.”

He went even further: “We’re facing the most significant test of our democracy since the Civil War. That’s not hyperbole. Since the Civil War — the Confederates back then never breached the Capitol as insurrectionists did on January the 6th. I’m not saying this to alarm you. I’m saying this because you should be alarmed.”

Mike Littwin

That might be hyperbole, but, if it is, it’s soft hyperbole. The danger is real. It’s as real as the Trumpian revisionism that would turn the Jan. 6 insurrection into a love fest and make a martyr of Ashli Babbitt, who was, in fact, part of a violent mob Trump now describes as “peaceful people…great people.” And yet, a number of these peaceful people, these great people, these very fine people seemed intent on hanging Mike Pence and zip-tying Nancy Pelosi. 

“Who is the person who shot an innocent, wonderful, incredible woman — a military woman — right in the head, and there’s no repercussions?” Trump asked. She was actually shot in the body — and we can argue whether she should have been shot, although she knew armed cops were waiting on the other side — as she was attempting to breach the last barrier between the rioters and lawmakers.

It’s as real as Kevin McCarthy’s most recent pilgrimage to one of a series of Trump-owned country clubs to kiss Donald Trump’s ring. McCarthy, who once called Trump responsible for the insurrection, now gladly buddies up with him, lending credence to the Big Lie in the hope that it will help Republicans win back the House in 2022, thereby making him speaker.

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It’s as real as the latest revelations about Trump’s final days in office — including from “I Alone Can Fix It,” the new book from Washington Post Pulitzer winners Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker — during which Gen. Mark Milley, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told aides he feared a coup, and called the lead up to the Jan. 6 insurrection a “Reichstag moment” and Trump a would-be “Fuhrer.” 

Milley not only feared a coup, but took steps to try to prevent one. He also worried that Trump might attack Iran. Read the book excerpt. It should shake anyone not among those Trump cultists who still insist the election was rigged. Actually, it should even shake them if they were to read it, which, we’ll assume, they won’t.

And because the danger is so real, Biden called for the Senate to pass two voting-rights bills that would provide a remedy for the contagion of voter-suppression laws being considered and/or passed in red-led states, all fed by Trump’s Big Lie.

Passing a bill into law that would set a national standard for voting rights laws is the best way to protect American democracy. And as Biden, again correctly, pointed out, many of the laws being passed in Republican states don’t simply make it harder to vote but change who actually counts the votes. They’re an invitation to abuse by the same state legislators who are passing these laws. 

Yes, they’re that dangerous, dangerous enough for Democrats in the Texas legislature to flee the state rather than to allow votes on among the most odious of the voter-suppression laws proposed so far.

You see, what Biden’s speech didn’t do — what it unforgivably didn’t do — was to make clear how those two bills, both stalled in the Senate, could be made into law.

There’s a way, and it’s not, as Biden suggested, more activism. There’s plenty of activism now. Ask the Texas legislators. It’s not to ask Republicans if they have no shame. They, uh, don’t. You can ask the Texans about that, too. The only path forward at this moment is to do something about the filibuster — either end it, reform it or carve out an exception for voting rights bills.

When Biden’s message, which should be repeated on a daily basis, doesn’t include calling out those Senate Democrats — Joe Manchin isn’t the only one — who oppose filibuster reform, it makes him part of the problem.

When Manchin says he won’t support even a filibuster carve-out on voting rights, it has to be made clear that the choice is not about the filibuster itself and its history of misuse, but about a choice between an arcane Senate rule and the democracy that senators are sworn to protect.

I almost feel sorry for Manchin, the senator from deep-red West Virginia, a state Trump won by nearly 40 points. Manchin has met with the Texas legislators and said he was in “total agreement” with them. He has met with civil rights leaders and voiced his support for them.

And he is now prepared to propose what he calls a pared-down bill to protect voting rights and said — he really did — that his bill “should” pass unanimously because who doesn’t want to protect voting rights. He may have forgotten that just a month ago, he offered a proposal meant to bring the parties together on this issue. Many Democrats who were wary of the proposal, including Stacey Abrams, came out in support. Exactly zero Senate Republicans did.

I’m happy to give Manchin another shot, even if, as the Texas Tribune reports, Manchin was headed to Texas for a fundraiser featuring some big Republican donors. When Manchin fails, once again, to find 10 Republicans to join him, he can then concede that the notion that Republicans will fall in line to protect voting rights is delusional and we can get back to the real world, in which filibusters can and should be reformed. And Biden, the Senate institutionalist, should be leading that call.

David Frum, the former axis-of-evil speechwriter and now an anti-Trumpist of long standing, has a piece for the Atlantic on the state of our democracy today and the threat that Trump and his followers represent. Frum writes that he has said consistently that it goes too far to call Trump a fascist, that it’s too easy and that “There are a lot of stops on the train line to bad before you get to Hitler Station.”

Frum says it’s still too easy to defame people by calling them fascist, but it’s no longer too soon to use the F-word, fascism, to describe the Trumpian movement and its attempt, which came closer than we may understand, to steal an election. Those are the stakes, for Manchin, for Biden, for all of us.

Let’s be honest.  If you have to choose between protecting democracy and protecting the filibuster, there’s not really any choice at all.

Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow.

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