Opinion

How Democrats got their confidence back

The COVID bill shows today's progressives don't fear a conservative backlash

Democrats aren't afraid anymore.

For much of my adult life, the party has operated from a stance of fear, caution, and tactical retreats. Bill Clinton's "Third Way" centrism was born, in part, of a belief that liberal Democrats couldn't win national elections with a progressive agenda in the post-Ronald Reagan era. His declaration that "the era of big government is over" came after Republicans took the House in 1994. When Barack Obama passed a huge stimulus during the Great Recession, it was filled with "nudges" designed to ensure that Americans didn't actually notice how that same big government was improving their lives. ObamaCare might have been a "big (bleeping) deal" for Dems, but it was also based on a plan that Mitt Romney — who once wanted to be known as "severely conservative" — passed and implemented in Massachusetts. For the last generation or so, when Democrats have tried to do big things, they often adopted conservative ideas and rhetoric to do so.

Those days are over. The $1.9 trillion COVID recovery bill that passed the House on Wednesday doesn't just mark the largest expansion of the American welfare state in modern memory, one that unapologetically offers massive poverty relief to the country — it also signifies a new era of confidence for Democrats. They passed the legislation with no Republican help whatsoever (and barely any input) and they're clearly fine with that.

"A party that previously quaked in fear of being caricatured as a gang of tax-and-spend liberals is fearful no more," writer Timothy Noah pointed out at Politico this week.

Of course, Democrats didn't find their fearlessness by happenstance — there was no Wizard of Oz to hand over a "Courage" medal and make everything OK. Getting here was a process.

To start with, today's young Democrats don't really remember the losing. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) has emerged as the face of congressional progressivism in the last few years, and she's just 31. That means she was born after Reagan left office, just 5 years old when Newt Gingrich's GOP ripped control of Congress away from Democrats in 1994, and all of 19 when Obama won the presidency. In her lifetime, Republicans have won the presidential popular vote just once. That naturally creates a different perspective from somebody like Clinton, who came to office in 1992 after Democrats had won the national popular vote just once in the previous quarter-century.

If today's young Democrats are less familiar with losing — and the culture of self doubt and second guessing that comes with it — they are more familiar with tough times than their predecessors. Millennials came of professional age about the same time the Great Recession hit, and have taken a second wallop during their prime earning years with COVID's damage to the economy. (One Washington Post columnist called them "the unluckiest generation.") It's no surprise they might be more interested in a robust safety net, and less serene about conservative "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" exhortations.

At the same time, Republicans have decimated their own credibility. Yes, a few of them still make noises about fiscal responsibility to criticize the COVID bill, but it's impossible to take seriously — not when so many of them voted just a few years ago for Donald Trump's deficit-exploding tax cuts that primarily benefited high-income earners, and not when Trump himself called for a round of big new stimulus checks just a couple of months ago. While the GOP is very ardent about keeping a tight budget when Democrats are in charge, it has long been a different story when they control the government. Democrats are betting that the public won't be fooled this time.

So Democrats arrived at this moment more confident in their politics, armed with a growing belief that America's problems demand progressive solutions, and unusually determined to ignore bad-faith objections from their GOP rivals. But it may have ultimately been the pandemic that broke Democrats' culture of fear. A new report from the left-leaning Center for American Progress shows that four in 10 Americans are receiving public assistance, or have family members who do so. That might be why one poll indicates that 59 percent of Republican voters support the COVID relief bill, along with 75 percent of the broader electorate — and why a GOP politician like Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) is taking credit for the bill's provisions despite voting against it.

Why wouldn't Democrats be confident?

“We are not going to be timid in the face of a great challenge,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said last week.

The real test, though, will be whether legislative success can translate into further political success. There is now a big push among progressive activists for President Joe Biden to go out and boast, loudly and repeatedly, about all the ways the new bill will help American families. Democrats don't just want to help the country — they want to get credit for it, too, when the 2022 midterm elections come around. They're not acting fearful of a conservative backlash, which is a big change from just a dozen years ago. That's why a number of progressive pundits and activists are frustrated with Biden for not following Trump's example and putting his name on all those $1,400 stimulus checks going out next week. Democrats have found their confidence. Now they're ready for some swagger.

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