Joe Biden Delivers the Speech, and the Fire, on Voting Rights He Should Have Brought Last July

II’m tired of being quiet!” President Joe Biden told a crowd Tuesday afternoon at the Atlanta University Center, which unites the city’s four historically black universities, in a speech intended to represent Democrats’ new push for a federal voting rights law. It begged the question: Who kept it secret about voting rights?

In the face of a rebellion by leaders of four powerful Georgia constituencies who chose to skip his visit and derided his relative inaction up to that point, Biden delivered his liveliest speech on the subject yet. (In connection with this – he actually only gave two, including one last July in Philadelphia, although he has referred to the issue at other times.) For the first time publicly, he thoroughly condemned the Senate’s filibuster rules. “Today, I am making it clear that to protect our democracy, I support changing Senate rules—however they need to be changed—to prevent a minority of senators from blocking voting rights measures.”

And while he didn’t name the two Democratic senators who oppose changing those rules, he still subtly shamed Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona.

“Every Democrat, Independent and Republican has to explain where they stand,” he said, adding, “History has never been kind to those who side with voter suppression over voting rights.” Later in the speech he turned up the rhetorical heat: “Do you want to be at the side of Dr. King or George Wallace? The side of John Lewis or Bull Connor? The side of Abraham Lincoln or Jefferson Davis?”

But what now? I think Manchin and Sinema are shameless. It will be progress to force them to vote against a change in Senate rules, as Biden is now proposing, that would impede any voting rights bill. They should be forced to make it clear where they stand: on the side of King, Lewis and Lincoln, or those who used the filibuster to block voting rights and civil rights laws in the mid-20th century?

Manchin and Sinema like to play dumb about this story (maybe I give them credit by saying they are play Stupid). On Monday night, the obstructionist from West Virginia incorrectly declared the filibuster is said to be “the tradition of the Senate here for 232 years…we have to be very careful about what we do…. We always have for 232 years. That’s what makes us different from any other place in the world.” The problem is, that’s not true. There is no filibuster in the Constitution; It was created in the mid-18th century, little used until the mid-20th century, as a struggle for racial equality, and its rules have been changed many, many times. Sinema has made similar false claims about the filibuster’s history. Can they be shamed for their (perhaps willful) ignorance? I doubt it, but it’s worth a try.

To be fair to Biden, when he made his “tired of being quiet” remark, he had just finished talking about “quiet conversations” with those reluctant to change Senate rules. He wasn’t sitting on his thumb. But the lack of public effort mattered.

Had Biden given that speech instead of the one he gave last July, in Atlanta instead of Philadelphia, things might be different now. At the very least, Georgia pro-suffrage advocates, who have worked to get not only Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris into the White House, but also Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff into the Senate, would likely feel less offended and allow for a unity front . (And suffrage champion Stacey Abrams, running for Georgia governor for a second time, may have found a way to resolve her “planning conflict” to join Biden and Harris in Atlanta. Or maybe not: your campaign has just released a statement of hers praising Biden’s speech and revealing they spoke by phone Tuesday morning.)

The New Georgia Project Action Fund, founded by Abrams and now led by Nsé Ufot, praised Biden’s speech, albeit with major reservations. “Today [Biden] took the first step in heeding the call from Georgia organizers, and we commend him for declaring support for changing Senate rules and removing the filibuster to pass federal voting rights legislation. But let’s be clear… a goal without a plan is just a wish.”

It’s not clear if any plan could reverse Manchin and Sinema. But it would have been nice to see more public effort to date.


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