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The big risk in Biden’s democracy gamble

Opinion by Frida Ghitis

From the moment Joe Biden announced he would run for the White House, he made it clear the driving motivation behind his presidency would be strengthening America’s commitment to democratic norms, under assault from forces foreign and domestic. As President, Biden has repeatedly asserted that fortifying democracy is a top priority of his administration. That’s why many were surprised when Biden didn’t use every tool within his reach to push the voting rights bill known as the For the People Act, which was effectively killed on Tuesday, when Senate Republicans voted against even debating the proposal.

Biden’s decision not to throw all his weight behind the bill, choosing to keep his powder dry for a fight over infrastructure, tells us a lot about his strategic thinking.

The President has not changed his mind about how important democracy is; he didn’t just decide that bridges and highways are a higher priority than the right to vote. Rather, Biden has made a tactical choice. He is wagering that improving infrastructure, creating jobs and raising standards of living for the bulk of Americans will prove a more effective way to show democracy works than shifting procedures on how to vote. It’s a gamble, and like every gamble, it may or may not pay off.

It’s not that Biden doesn’t support the bill. He has lambasted opponents of voting rights, calling their efforts “sick,” “pernicious” and “un-American.” And he clearly understands just how vital it is. After all, Republicans in state legislatures across the country have been busy passing bills that create obstacles to voting. By one count, already 48 states have introduced legislation restricting voting rights. Biden has put Vice President Kamala Harris in charge of tackling the new assault on electoral rights. After Tuesday’s Senate spectacle, she vowed, “The fight is not over.”

But Biden could have done more — worked harder to create voter pressure on legislators, spoken out more frequently, toured the country promoting the bill — and frustrated progressives want him to. “It’s always good to hear from your leader,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren. They want him to use more of his considerable power to exert the necessary pressure to achieve results.

Some have argued that the reason Biden didn’t do more is because the congressional arithmetic would make it a futile effort. That’s certainly part of the reason. As David Axelrod noted on CNN, “I don’t think there is anything he could have done that would have materially changed what happened today.” With a Senate divided 50-50, and Republicans abusing the filibuster rule, which allows them to require 60 votes to pass nearly all legislation, Democrats are hamstrung.

But that’s not the entire story.

Biden understands that voting rights are paramount to safeguarding democracy. But from what he has said we know that he believes the future of democracy depends on something beyond everyone’s right to cast a ballot. What matters more is persuading the public that this is a system that produces tangible results for them. If the system doesn’t give you a better life, some may ask, why is it so important to protect it?

Biden has been making that case for months, at home and abroad, even as democracy loses ground across the globe and comes under assault in the United States.

During his first speech to Congress, just after reaching 100 days in office, he declared, “We have to prove that democracy still works. That our government still works — and can deliver for the people.”

It’s an argument he has made again and again. In his first appearance as President before world leaders, back in February, he told a virtual gathering, “We are in the midst of a fundamental debate about the future direction of our world,” a contest between, “those who argue that — given all of the challenges we face, from the fourth industrial revolution to a global pandemic — autocracy is the best way forward, and those who understand that democracy is essential to meeting those challenges.”

Those who argue that democracy is a failing system are led by China, whose autocratic regime has succeeded in lifting millions upon millions out of poverty. China’s President Xi Jinping does not hide his desire to convince global audiences, taking every opportunity to trumpet China as a superior “model for the world.”

Biden’s tactic to help a besieged democracy survive goes beyond securing the right to vote. It also goes beyond waxing eloquent about the value of freedom and the human costs of autocracy. The President does give the philosophical speeches, and he warns about those looming dangers. But he is a pragmatic idealist, and he’s counting on Americans having the same inclination. It’s almost as if he hears them say, “If democracy is better, let it prove it.”

That’s why his first priority was breaking the back of the pandemic and helping those whose livelihoods were most deeply affected, and his second one is reinvigorating the economy for the long haul with an ambitious infrastructure plan.

The risk is that, as Biden allocates his finite political capital toward longer-range programs, even as Republicans focus sharply on strangling Democrats’ efforts to strengthen voting rights, he is allowing the most fundamental mechanism of democracy, the act of voting, to become increasingly difficult for citizens to exercise.

If his gamble fails, he could end up creating prosperity and well-being, just in time for the party that is undercutting democracy to take power.

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