On the verge of another historic success in a year full of them, Democrats across Washington are already worrying about how they may squander it.
The president, the speaker of the House, the Senate majority leader and their teams may be days away from passing transformative legislation that will invest trillions in the U.S. economy. They may well, after months of ugly legislative sausage-making, overcome GOP obstructionism, internal divisions, and media narratives that always seem to emphasize the cloud around every silver lining produced by the White House. The Build Back Better and infrastructure packages would be capstones to a year of extraordinary accomplishments.
And yet, in private, many Democrats are fretting they still may snatch defeat from the jaws of landmark victories. White House and Capitol Hill hands fear that, even with the passage of the Build Back Better bill and the bipartisan infrastructure bill, Dems will either fail to frame their achievements in a way that resonates with average Americans or let their frustrations about what has yet to be achieved undercut the benefits that should accrue to them for what has been.
I have heard these concerns expressed from senior officials in the White House and Congress and from party opinion leaders. They fear that Democrats won’t accept victory, and won’t take “yes” for an answer. Looking ahead to passage, Democratic strategist and Clinton White House veteran Paul Begala tried to put the moment into perspective:
“One of the great lessons of progressive leaders is to never attack a bill for what is not in it. In 1964, LBJ removed the voting rights section from the 1964 Civil Rights Act. It was the most important provision, but he couldn't get it passed. So he got what he could—which was a great civil rights bill—and then came back in 1965 and got voting rights too. Same with Obamacare: no Medicare for all, then not even the compromise public option. But Obama got what he could, and tens of millions of Americans got health insurance.
“Second,” continued Begala, “Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) told me this months ago: ‘Democrats need to focus on two things after we pass legislation: bragging and blaming.’ Sadly, we did neither after passing the Biden American Recovery Act earlier this year. I want to see a bunch of both bragging and blaming when we get the BBB package through. Not one Republican supports childcare. Not one Republican supports cheaper prescription drugs. Not one Republican supports dental, vision, and hearing in Medicare. Not one Republican supports pre-K. Not one Republican supports free community college. We focus on the one or two Democrats who aren’t on board—and give a pass to the 50 Senate Republicans and 200+ House R’s who oppose everything.”
It’s advice Democrats badly need to take, rather than snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. While you wouldn’t know it from the fighting within the Democratic party or how it’s been covered by the press, consider how Joe Biden’s first year in office may look to history:
He defeated the most corrupt president in U.S history. He did so in the face of the first transfer of power in U.S. history that was not peaceful. In response he put in place a government committed to restoring the rule of law and undoing the damage his predecessor had done.
Biden inherited a nation wracked by the worst public health crisis in 100 years, the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, an assault on our institutions, racial division, and deep damage that had been done to our international standing. There was no plan in place to administer vaccines in the midst of a pandemic that had claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, infected tens of millions of Americans and brought the economy to its knees.
Ten months later, despite relentless opposition from the right to implementing commonsense, science-based measures, over 200 million Americans have been vaccinated, almost 80 percent of all Americans over 12 have received at least one dose of the vaccine. The economy has rebounded. Since Biden took office, more jobs have been created than in the 16 years of the past three GOP administrations combined. The economic growth in the second quarter alone was at an annual rate of 6.5 percent.
The $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan—which received the support of precisely zero Republicans—helped drive this growth, lifting millions, including half of America’s children, out of poverty. New judges are being appointed at a record rate. Trump’s worst regulations, which had put the environment, refugees and immigrants at risk, have been reversed. The U.S. ended its longest war. We re-entered the global climate pact. We re-entered the World Health Organization. We launched a program of vaccine diplomacy that will help hundreds of millions worldwide and is by far the biggest of its kind. A recent Gallup poll has shown U.S. standing in the world that was at record lows under Trump has rebounded to nearly equal to the historic highs achieved under Barack Obama.
The infrastructure and social investment packages that may soon pass were not easy to arrive at. People said achieving any bipartisan support for legislation like the $1 trillion infrastructure deal was impossible in this era of political polarization. Hammering out the Build Back Better plan and ensuring it was all paid for has involved orchestrating the views of all factions in the Democratic Party, given the party’s slim majorities in the House and especially the Senate. Gaining agreement on a package that is likely to total nearly $2 trillion more in investments in vital programs that will help Americans from coast-to-coast has been difficult.
But, should that package pass, it will cap off a year in which 5 million new jobs have been created. Nearly $5 trillion in investments made in our economy and people. A pandemic brought under control. U.S. leadership restored. You would think it impossible for that not to be seen for the unprecedented series of accomplishments it is.
But the threat that message won’t get through is real. Ambassador Tim Roemer, a former House member from Indiana, said, “I am confident we will win the battle(s) but concerned we may potentially lose the war. Defining and marketing the legislation is absolutely essential. It is currently defined by the media as a ‘spending’ bill or creating a European welfare system. It is in fact an investment in America to be a global power and prevail in the competition with China. It is rebuilding our middle class and preparing for 21st century jobs.”
On an episode last week of my Deep State Radio podcast, California Representative Ro Khanna, a leading progressive voice, addressed the concerns that some Democrats may focus not on the success but on the ideas that did not make it into the final legislation. He said claiming victory “doesn’t mean we settle and say ‘OK our work is done.’ But we need to talk about it positively. If we just emphasize all the negativity that will get in the way of people how this has impacted their lives.”
Jim Kessler, vice president for policy at Third Way, a moderate Democratic think tank, notes that some of the problems are already self-inflicted, “We set expectations too high. We were never going to be at $3.5T and should have left that number behind long ago.…Between BIF (the bipartisan infrastructure bill) and what it looks like BBB will be, this is awfully good stuff. But too many will focus on what got left on the cutting room floor.”
This is a view shared by former spokesperson for the Clinton 2016 presidential campaign and Dem consultant Karen Finney, “Democrats have to define the narrative about what is in the final package, focused on the specifics and their impact on people’s lives, the promises kept, not the price tag and what isn’t in it. Ideally the president, VP and cabinet would hit the road to tout the package.”
Other experienced observers note this is not all about self-inflicted wounds. Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute states, “My main concern is that the lengthy and difficult process of getting to yes-- welcome to the realities of the legislative process with tighter-than-tight majorities-- will take away from what objectively will be a huge accomplishment. I am less worried about Dems crapping over the results and more about the media, with its narrative focused on ‘Democrats in disarray’ and on the $3.5 trillion number.”
Ornstein, more optimistic than many with whom I spoke, believes that following the passage of these bills, a focus on voting rights may lead to another success. “I think when the bills get through—nearly $3 trillion in transformative programs, added to the nearly $2 trillion in ARPA— they will turn immediate focus to the voting/election bills, and I am cautiously optimistic about getting a rules change.”
For many however, there is concern that whereas Dems like Senator Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema may actually have come around on the BBB bill, they and others in the party may be less inclined to agree to the compromise reform of the filibuster that is a prerequisite to passage of the kind of sweeping voting rights legislation needed to offset GOP efforts to gain an unfair advantage in upcoming elections. This issue is so inflammatory that some senior officials were reluctant to discuss it on the record, but off-the-record they did not share Ornstein’s optimism.
Third Way’s Kessler said, “As for the filibuster… once it was obvious we didn’t have the votes and would never have the votes… move on. I don’t like the filibuster either, but it’s not about shots on goal, it’s about pucks in the net.”
Will Marshall, CEO of the Progressive Policy Institute, said on the likelihood of passing comprehensive voting rights legislation, “That's really not an option, is it? We'll all be disappointed, but the obstacles Republicans have put in the way of voting aren't insuperable. At this point, there are really just four states that have gone down this anti-democratic rathole: Georgia, Texas, Florida and Iowa. Democrats should ask Stacy Abrams to lead a four-state campaign to foil the Republican plot to keep Americans from voting.”
Khanna said on this issue, reflecting concerns about what is possible, “I believe the focus of voting rights is going to be there as soon as the economic packages are added. And I think you're gonna see a very forceful appeal for the president, the vice president and others, at least, that's my hope, on these issues, that the base of the party will realize that this is not lip service, that we're really fighting it. And maybe we succeed, maybe we convince folks to have the assumption that if not, the 2020 election becomes a referendum on that, but they will see the fight for the Democratic Party on it.”
In the end, the prescription that all those with concerns arrive at is to focus on the achievements. Dwelling on what has yet to be done will only, they conclude, make it less likely that those issues are ever addressed. Worse, they make it more likely the Democrats lose in the midterms and that much of work of the Biden administration is undone or further progress is stifled.
Simon Rosenberg, the founder of the New Democratic Network, frames it this way: “If Democrats spend more time in the next year talking about things which haven’t been done rather than the things which have, it will be a very very hard mid-term. We’ve done a lot of good things and need to make sure voters give us credit for it all in the mid-terms, starting with defeating COVID.”
Much as Democrats may fret in private, they need to make the most of what has been achieved during this historic year. And that so many offer a shared prescription—focus on the scale and impact of accomplishments, frame them in human terms, and work together to win in 2022 so more progress is possible in the years ahead—is a sign that their common awareness of the challenges ahead may ultimately result in the Dems not being in disarray after all.