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Joe Manchin as a Hollywood Western hero

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.)

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) has the opportunity to become a Hollywood Western hero.

The Republican Party has become the party of vote suppression. In dozens of states, they are working to make voting more difficult, because they seem to think that low turnout helps them win elections. A Georgia bill would make it a crime to give food and water to voters waiting in line. 

Last week, the House of Representatives passed a voting rights bill providing for automatic and same-day registration, early voting, expanded voting by mail and other provisions to make voting easier in elections for federal offices. But it can’t pass the Senate, because the Republicans will filibuster it.

Joe Manchin says he will “never” vote to abolish the filibuster. But with voting rights at stake, the nation may soon contemplate an episode reminiscent of the 1962 John Ford Western “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.”

In the climactic episode of the movie, Ransom Stoddard (played by Jimmy Stewart), a young attorney who came to the West hoping to establish the rule of law, is driven to an armed showdown with the brutal thug Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin). Valance has committed numerous outrages, but the last straw is when Valance interferes with an election, trying to steal the office for himself and lashing out violently when he fails. Law enforcement authorities are too feeble to respond. So, Stoddard must face Valance in defense of representative government. 

Manchin defends the filibuster by invoking the Senate’s traditions of bipartisanship and compromise. He knows perfectly well that those traditions died at the beginning of the Obama administration, when the Republicans decided that addressing the worst recession since the 1930s was less important than opposing anything a Democratic president wanted to do. As the stimulus bill showed, it is still possible for a bare majority to legislate, but they have to do it by distorting procedural constraints that make no sense.  

Manchin evidently knows something about scriptwriting. He has been elected to the Senate twice from a state that Trump just won by 38 points. He needs to portray himself as the moderate voice among the Democrats. And he has done it with impressive political skill. The Republicans have strangely decided to help construct this narrative, presenting him as a moderate facing down extremists. By making a deal with Manchin on the stimulus bill, Biden got to look like a moderate as well. Manchin briefly delayed that legislation, but then wholeheartedly endorsed it, helping Biden portray it as a compromise even though not a single Republican voted for it.

In the film, Stoddard comes to the showdown with reluctance, pain and a profound sense of loss. It is contrary to everything he believes in. But you can push a man only so far. That reluctance is what we like about him. Manchin is broadcasting his reluctance. If you keep pushing him, though . . .

Manchin now says that he’s open to “reforming” the filibuster, perhaps by making obstructionist senators actually stand for hours to make their case, like the hero (coincidentally, also Jimmy Stewart) of the 1939 film “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”  He will, like Ransom Stoddard, do it with great sadness, having tried as hard as he could to stick with the old rules. “I’m not going to go there until my Republican friends have the ability to have their say also.” If he finally votes to abolish – oops, I mean “reform” – the filibuster, that will say less about him than it does about the unreasonable forces he is up against. It was Liberty Valance, not Ransom Stoddard, who first forsook the rule of law. 

I won’t spoil the ending more than the title already does. Let’s just say that Valance is much the worse for wear. And so, in all likelihood, is the filibuster.  

Andrew Koppelman, John Paul Stevens Professor of Law at Northwestern University, is the author of “Gay Rights vs. Religious Liberty? The Unnecessary Conflict (Oxford University Press, 2020).  Follow him on Twitter @AndrewKoppelman.

Tags Biden stimulus Filibuster Filibuster in the United States Senate Joe Manchin United States Senate

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