There are lots of newspaper movies but there’s only one Citizen Kane – “the greatest film ever made” – Orson Welles’ first film. But that was it. He could never top this tale of what we would now call a media baron, a man who controlled a vast empire of newspapers and got to form public opinion through both exposing the truth about big events, or arranging for them to happen, and through hyping sensationalist nonsense that made no difference in the life of anyone at all but sold a whole lot of newspapers. That would be Rupert Murdoch today, but Charles Foster Kane, played by Welles, was pretty much William Randolph Hearst with a bit of Joseph Pulitzer thrown in. Kane was a monster and a truth-teller, power-mad and good for society, when the truth had to come out. When he made up the truth things got dangerous. But the character was fascinating. Hearst prohibited mention of the film in any of his newspapers.
That didn’t matter. A “type” was born. The guy who would shout out “Someone get me the story right now!” and send his best man (or woman) to Washington, or wherever, to find out what was really going on. Because something was going on! Something always is. The news is high drama. Its inherent high drama is another thing the Welles film established. There’s an amazing story to be told here. Get me that story!
There may be no Charles Foster Kane at the New York Times these days, or even an irascible Perry White, but someone told Nicholas Fandos, their congressional correspondent in Washington, to go get the real story now, and make it dramatic, so that’s what Fandos did here:
Democrats began pushing on Wednesday for the most substantial expansion of voting rights in a half-century, laying the groundwork in the Senate for what would be a fundamental change to the ways voters get to the polls and elections are run.
At a contentious hearing on Capitol Hill, Democratic leaders made a passionate case for a bill that would mandate automatic voter registration nationwide, expand early and mail-in voting, end gerrymandering that skews congressional districts for maximum partisan advantage and curb the influence of money in politics.
This was nothing less than the final battle to save democracy, but in this context:
The effort is taking shape as Republicans have introduced more than 250 bills to restrict voting in 43 states and have continued to spread false accusations of fraud and impropriety in the 2020 election. It comes just months after those claims, spread by President Donald J. Trump as he sought to cling to power, fueled a deadly riot at the Capitol on Jan. 6 that showed how deeply his party had come to believe in the myth of a stolen election.
Fandos tips his hand here. Those false accusations of fraud and impropriety, taken to court over sixty times in six states and tossed out as false, are not false, if you follow the logic of the Trump base. The fix was in. Someone got to those judges. And as for the certified state counts, someone got to those state officials – perhaps George Soros – and the MyPillow guy can prove this if only anyone would listen to him. The election was stolen. That there’s no propf of that at all simply proves it was stolen. This proves that those guys were good. And something must be done about that!
But that unusual view of reality really did not come up in the Senate chambers. There, this was grounded in reality, and this was quite simple:
Republicans were unapologetic in their opposition to the measure, with some openly arguing that if Democrats succeeded in making it easier for Americans to vote and in enacting the other changes in the bill, it would most likely place their party permanently in the minority.
And thus it was time for high drama, because this was about the one big idea of America in the first place:
“Any American who thinks that the fight for a full and fair democracy is over is sadly and sorely mistaken,” said Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and the majority leader. “Today, in the 21st century, there is a concerted, nationwide effort to limit the rights of citizens to vote and to truly have a voice in their own government.”
Mr. Schumer’s rare appearance at a committee meeting underscored the stakes, not just for the election process but for his party’s own political future. He called the proposed voting rollbacks in dozens of states – including Georgia, Iowa and Arizona – an “existential threat to our democracy” reminiscent of the Jim Crow segregationist laws of the past.
He chanted “Shame! Shame! Shame!” at Republicans who were promoting them.
And so it began:
It was the start of an uphill battle by Senate Democrats, who have characterized what they call the For the People Act as the civil rights imperative of modern times, to overcome divisions in their own ranks and steer around Republican opposition to shepherd it into law. Doing so may require them to change Senate rules to eliminate the filibuster, once used by segregationists to block civil rights measures in the 1960s.
They won’t let that happen again, not this time, but this won’t be pretty:
Republicans signaled they were ready to fight. Conceding that allowing more people to vote would probably hurt their candidates, they denounced the legislation, passed by the House this month, as a power grab by the Democrats, intent on federalizing elections to give themselves a permanent political advantage. They insisted that it was the right of states to set their own election laws, including those that make it harder to vote, and warned that Democrats’ proposal could lead to rampant fraud, which experts say has never been found to be widespread.
So it’s Civil Rights versus States’ Rights one more time. It’s 1860 again, or 1963 again. But it’s 2021, featuring Texas Ted:
Some Republicans resorted to lies or distortions to condemn the measure, falsely claiming that Democrats were seeking to cheat by enfranchising undocumented immigrants or encouraging illegal voting. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas said the bill aimed to register millions of unauthorized immigrants, though that would remain unlawful under the measure…
In fact, it is illegal for noncitizens to vote, and the bill would do nothing to change that or a requirement that people registering to vote swear they are citizens. It would extend the franchise to millions of former felons, as some states already do, but only after they have served their sentences.
Texas Ted is a bit of a drama queen. Others argued closer to something like reality:
Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri, the top Republican on the Senate Rules Committee, which convened the hearing, said states were taking appropriate steps to restore public confidence after 2020 by imposing laws that require voters to show identification before voting and limiting so-called ballot harvesting, where others collect voters’ completed absentee ballots and submit them to election officials. He said that if Democrats were allowed to rush through changes on the national level, “chaos will reign in the next election and voters will have less confidence than they currently do.”
The suggestion piqued Senator Amy Klobuchar, Democrat of Minnesota and the committee chairwoman, who shot back that it was the current elections system – an uneven patchwork of state laws and evolving voting rules – that had caused “chaos” at polling places.
“Chaos is what we’ve seen in the last years – five-hour or six-hour lines in states like Arizona to vote. Chaos is purging names of longtime voters from a voter list so they can’t go vote in states like Georgia,” she said. “What this bill tries to do is to simply make it easier for people to vote and take the best practices that what we’ve seen across the country, and put it into law as we are allowed to do under the Constitution.”
That was the Amy and Roy Show. Amy won again. And there are facts. The bill is what it is:
As written, the more than 800-page bill, which passed the House 220 to 210 mostly along party lines, is the most ambitious elections overhaul in generations, chock-full of provisions that experts say would drive up turnout, particularly among minorities who tend to vote Democratic. Many of them are anathema to Republicans.
Its voting provisions alone would create minimum standards for states, neutering voter ID laws, restoring voting rights to former felons, and putting in place requirements like automatic voter registration and no-excuse mail-in balloting. Many of the restrictive laws proposed by Republicans in the states would move in the opposite direction.
But that’s not the half of it:
The bill would also require states to use independent commissions to draw nonpartisan congressional districts, a change that would weaken the advantages of Republicans who control the majority of state legislatures currently in charge of drawing those maps. It would force super PACs to disclose their big donors and create a new public campaign financing system for congressional candidates.
In short, everyone has to play fair, and there’s this:
Democrats also said they still planned to advance a separate bill restoring a key enforcement provision in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, after a 2013 Supreme Court ruling gutted it. The ruling paved the way for many of the restrictive state laws Democrats are now fighting.
That 2013 Supreme Court ruling was odd. The provision that states with a history of voter suppression – poll taxes and literacy tests and whatnot – had to have the courts approve any new changes in that state’s voting rules, was ruled unconstitutional. That didn’t apply to all states. That was unfair. And anyway, no one would do any of that stuff now. We had had a black president. Racism was over.
Really? This is one more thing the Democrats want to fix. And course Republicans are livid about this particular effort. The Roberts court has been right! Racism is over, damn it! None of them are racists! The Democrats are calling them names again!
And the drama continued:
To make their case, Republicans turned to two officials who backed an effort to overturn then-President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s election victory. Mac Warner, the secretary of state of West Virginia, and Todd Rokita, the attorney general of Indiana, both supported a Texas lawsuit late last year asking the Supreme Court to invalidate the election results in key battleground states Mr. Biden won, citing groundless accusations of voting improprieties being spread by Mr. Trump.
They didn’t think their accusations had been groundless. They also thought any state could invalidate another state’s election results, because those results harmed their own state, in some sort of unfair way. That went to the Supreme Court. They had no standing. What any other state did in administering its election was none of their damned business. Lower courts, appellate and district, had previously ruled that their accusations had been groundless, if not absurd. But these two were back:
On Wednesday, Democrats balked when Mr. Rokita, a former Republican congressman, asserted that their proposed changes would “open our elections up to increased voter fraud and irregularities” like the ones that he said had caused widespread voter mistrust in the 2020 outcome.
Senator Jon Ossoff, a freshman Democrat from Georgia, chastised the attorney general, saying he was spreading misinformation and conspiracies.
“I take exception to the comments that you just made, Mr. Rokita, that public concern regarding the integrity of the recent election is born of anything but a deliberate and sustained misinformation campaign led by a vain former president unwilling to accept his own defeat,” Mr. Ossoff said.
Mr. Rokita merely scoffed and repeated an earlier threat to sue to block the legislation from being carried out should it ever become law, a remedy that many Republican-led states would most likely pursue if Democrats were able to win its enactment.
“You are entitled to your opinion, as misinformed as it may be, but I share the opinion of Americans,” Mr. Rokita said.
Americans! Not some uppity young just-elected Jewish senator from Georgia, or that Black preacher just elected to the Senate alongside him. Americans!
Fandos then slips in the last word on that:
Sixty-five percent of voters believe the election was free and fair, according to a Morning Consult poll conducted in late January, but only 32 percent of Republicans believe that.
That was nasty, but a dramatic ending to a dramatic day. There’s a vain former president unwilling to accept his own defeat. There’s his party, being asked to agree to play fair and openly admitting that they simply cannot allow that. That would be the end of them, and someone’s in the corner, shouting – States’ Rights! But there are those who will fight to save democracy. Someone else is shouting something else – “Shame! Shame! Shame!”
Charles Foster Kane would approve of this new story. This is dramatic. And there are heroes, and those who aren’t. The New York Times’ Jamelle Bouie notes this:
There was a time, in recent memory, when the Republican Party both believed it could win a national majority and actively worked to build one.
Take the last Republican president before Donald Trump, George W. Bush. His chief political adviser, Karl Rove, envisioned a durable Republican majority, if not a permanent one. And Bush would try to make this a reality…
There is no such ambition, or confidence, in today’s Republican Party.
Convinced, after Trump’s defeat in the 2020 presidential election, that there is no way to win the White House in a diverse electorate with high turnout, Republicans have made it their mission to restrict the vote as much as possible.
But there is an alternative:
What’s striking about all this is that, far from evidence of Republican decline, the 2020 election is proof of Republican resilience, even strength. Trump won more than 74 million votes last year. He made substantial gains with Hispanic voters – reversing more than a decade of Republican decline – and improved with Black voters too. He lost, yes, but he left his party in better-than-expected shape in both the House and the Senate.
If Republicans could break themselves of Trump and look at last November with clear eyes, they would see that their fears of demographic eclipse are overblown and that they can compete – even thrive – in the kinds of high-turnout elections envisioned by voting rights activists.
But they’re just afraid. That’s part of this story too. And this story may be the story of the century. This is about the possible end of America. Charles Foster Kane would play this for all its worth. Do we have a representative democracy? That’s the question. This is the big one. There’s no other story now. And it only gets more intense.
That’s as it should be. The news does matter after all. Oh, and Rosebud was his sled.