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In an era of diminished expectations

Virginia state capitol in Richmond
Virginia state capitol in Richmond

The first state to seriously consider changing its electoral-vote distribution method to rig future presidential elections was also the first start to formally reject the idea.

A [Virginia state] Senate panel voted Tuesday to kill a GOP plan to change the way Virginia allocates electoral college votes.

The Senate Committee on Privileges and Elections voted to bypass the bill indefinitely....The measure appeared headed for defeat after Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) came out against it Friday, as did two GOP senators who sit on the committee that would decide the bill's fate.

The committee vote was 11 to 4. In other words, it wasn't close.

What's more, the vote came against a backdrop of a larger campaign that appears to be imploding. Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R), who had expressed some tepid support for the scheme a few days ago, is now moving in the other direction, as is the state Senate's president. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) started balking yesterday, and a few hours later, the idea effectively died in Ohio.

For those concerned with the integrity of our democratic process and the fairness of American elections, the apparent collapse of the election-rigging scheme is, to be sure, welcome news. The satisfaction is not about party or ideology, but rather, about the ideals of a level playing field in which candidates and parties can engage in a competitive battle of ideas.

But stepping back and looking at this in a larger context, I'd suggest there are two broader angles to keep in mind. The first is that while the relief of the scheme's failure is understandable, it's the result of diminished expectations. After the Virginia committee vote yesterday afternoon, I saw some voting rights advocates effectively cheer, "Hooray! Republicans considered rigging a presidential election through shameless cheating, but then decided against it!"

But that's not saying much, and celebrating a decision not to do something awful is, to put it mildly, unsatisfying.

I'm reminded of an item Ezra Klein recently published about the resolution of the latest debt-ceiling crisis.

On Friday, I asked a Democratic Senate aide what he thought of the House Republicans' decision to raise the debt ceiling for three months, putting it after the sequester and the continuing resolution (which funds the government and could, if not agreed to by the end of March, lead to a government shutdown). "It's a sign of how much the bar has shifted that the prospect of 'just' a shutdown feels like a relief," he said.

Quite right. The "bar has shifted" so far that many of us are delighted, if not amazed, when Republican policymakers voluntarily agree not to crash the global economy on purpose. Our standards for success have fallen so low, we don't actually expect progress -- we instead cheer the absence of political malevolence.

I'm delighted the Republicans' election-rigging scheme is unraveling, but it's nevertheless disheartening that such a scheme was considered, debated, and endorsed by many in the first place. I don't want a political process in which Americans celebrate when something ridiculous fails to happen; I want one in which we rejoice when something worthwhile does happen.

As for the other angle, there's likely to be some debate about how, exactly, the GOP's electoral-college plan fell apart so quickly, and whether it was doomed from the start. Reasonable people can disagree, and the answer is obviously speculative, but I'm of the opinion that it failed because of the scrutiny that came when the media realized what was going on and started talking about it.

Sunlight, in this case, was a very effective disinfectant.