The author of this opinion essay is Max Burns, a Democratic strategist and founder of Third Degree Strategies, a progressive communications firm.
(The Hill) — In a year defined by media narratives portraying Democrats in disarray, it can be tempting to think that the party is defined solely by its work in Washington. And while pundits are keen to focus on President Biden’s congressional setbacks, a myopic focus on the Beltway ignores the broader Democratic agenda unfolding in states and cities across the country.
Unfortunately for Biden and the Democratic Party, voters across the country are frustrated by what they view as a lack of progress by Congress on key elements of Biden’s popular Build Back Better spending plan, not to mention the internal party frustrations around the Biden team’s de-prioritization of criminal justice reform and voting rights earlier in the summer.
As we sit down for an increasingly politically polarized Thanksgiving with friends and family, let’s break down five victories Democrats can be thankful for this holiday season.
Democrats put maternal health in the spotlight
Ask the average American about what’s in Democrats’ sweeping $1.75-trillion-over-a-decade Build Back Better spending plan and they’re likely to paint a picture in the broadest strokes: free preschool, an expansion of the child tax credit and tax hikes on the wealthy. Lost in the bill’s details are Rep. Lauren Underwood’s (D-Ill.) historic investments for mothers, including critical funding for Black maternal health in a nation where Black moms die during pregnancy at nearly four times the rate of their white counterparts.
“I’m thankful that the Build Back Better Act includes historic investments in maternal health equity,” Underwood told me. “Extending mandatory Medicaid coverage to a full year postpartum and my Black Maternal Health Momnibus Act represent the largest-ever investment in advancing maternal health equity, and I’m proud that the House passed this legislation to save moms’ lives.”
Criminal justice reform is winning in the states
Despite largely falling off Democrats’ national agenda over the summer, criminal justice and prosecutorial reform has remained one of state and local Democrats’ most effective campaign issues. And despite some embarrassing electoral setbacks earlier this month in Virginia, progressive prosecutors have largely succeeded in running – and winning – in closely-divided red and blue states.
In Philadelphia, District Attorney Larry Krasner sailed to a second term by a two-to-one margin, running up the score against a GOP challenger who made “tough on crime” the centerpiece of his campaign. In ruby-red Norfolk, Va., voters elected a progressive who described crime as a “symptom of structural racism” and vowed to further separate drug offenses from prison sentences. Democrats should be heartened that a majority of Americans, including some Republicans, agree: A recent Gallup survey revealed that over 60 percent of Americans favored addressing “social and economic problems” to lower crime.
Congress gets it together to pass historic infrastructure spending
In case you didn’t hear, Democrats and Republicans briefly called a truce in their no-holds-barred war against cooperation to pass a historic $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill. The transformational package touches on nearly every piece of the aging infrastructure holding our country together, including $550 billion in new funding for roads, bridges, broadband internet and more efficient delivery of utilities.
The bill also represents public validation for Biden’s dreams of bipartisan collaboration, which many in the Democratic Party considered out of touch and wishful thinking in an era of record high political tribalism. If Democrats can find their voices and sell the bipartisan plan’s offerings to voters who will be immediately helped by them, they will enter a bruising 2022 midterm election cycle with a positive, results-driven message.
Congress provided the raw materials for that campaign — now Democrats will need to package Biden’s big reforms into a narrative more compelling than dryly reciting the bill’s big topline spending numbers.
COVID-19 mass vaccination efforts are succeeding
Despite politically polarized resistance to COVID-19 vaccination, the United States has made incredible progress deploying a safe and effective vaccine to tens of millions of people. Nearly 200 million Americans have been fully vaccinated, and nearly 70 percent of people have received at least one vaccine dose. With over 452 million vaccine doses administered, Biden and Democrats can lay claim to the fastest, largest vaccination rollout in human history. And the effects are real.
“Imagine if this whole response was being run by the same people who bungled everything in 2020 and are now leading the anti-vax pushes that are killing thousands,” said Aaron Fritschner, deputy chief of staff and communications director for Virginia Rep. Don Beyer. “[At Thanksgiving] a year ago, I couldn’t see my family safely. It feels like such a blessing.”
Senate Democrats are repairing Mitch McConnell’s GOP-packed judiciary
Senate Republicans packed a record number of hard-right conservative jurists onto the federal bench during Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) tenure as Senate majority leader. Lefty pundits (including your columnist) urged Democrats to follow the McConnell playbook by rapidly accelerating the pace of judicial confirmations ahead of a possible 2022 Red Wave election cycle. To the surprise of many progressives, the Biden administration agreed, putting Democrats on pace to appoint federal judges even faster than Trump, or any other president.
Part of Biden’s seat-filling success comes from continuing the Trump-era tradition of largely ignoring the objections of senators from the states in which judges are being nominated. But that isn’t the only reason: Biden has also made it a priority to fill the 108 Article III vacancies currently spread across the judiciary by nominating a record-number of candidates and fast-tracking almost every single one. The end result will be a judiciary still tilted to the right, but pulled back significantly from its far-right Trumpist extremes.
Republican obstruction is doing an excellent job of slowing long overdue national change. But that doesn’t mean Democrats are empty-handed in this season of giving thanks. Even if the Congress-focused Beltway media rarely look beyond the East Coast, Democrats can raise a banner of thanks and celebration for rolling out signature victories in Washington and across the country.