EDITOR’S NOTE: Each week we cross-post Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column from the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full archive of Katrina’s Post columns here.
As of last week, Americans can now walk into a pharmacy and purchase hearing aids over the counter. This amazing development is just one of many benefits that Democrats have handed working-class Americans over the past two years—and that they should spend the final weeks before the midterm elections loudly reminding voters about.
Experts have called over-the-counter hearing aids a “game-changer” for public health. About 30 million Americans older than 12 have hearing loss, a condition that can lead to increased risk for accidents, depression, and dementia. Hearing aids can lower such risks, but given an average out-of-pocket cost of $4,000 per pair until now, most Americans with hearing loss have never worn them. Now, thanks to a recent FDA rule change made possible by an executive order President Biden signed last year, lower prices and greater market competition will make more options available to millions.
With this move, the Biden administration has found a strategy for a winning politics: pursuing practical policies that tangibly benefit working-class Americans. The administration started by sending out $1,400 stimulus checks—money it is still working to get to eligible families—and has gone on to ease the burden of medical debt, forgive student loans, and pardon people with federal convictions for simple marijuana possession.
But these serious (and popular!) victories for working people haven’t necessarily boosted Democrats’ electoral prospects. On the campaign trail, Democrats have failed to offer a clear message about what they’ve done while in power to improve Americans’ quality of life. Instead, they find themselves playing defense on problems largely beyond their control—gas prices, inflation, crime—which leads to candidates’ looking for scapegoats for what’s going wrong instead of making an affirmative case for what’s going right. And if the old adage that people vote their pocketbooks is true, voters won’t accept excuses; they’ll want results.
But Democrats have bolstered people’s bank accounts. It’s just that it won’t do them any good unless they remind people where that windfall came from—and unless they keep those benefits coming. A recent Data for Progress report indicated that the child tax credit led to a surge in support for Democrats among parents who received it—but that bump evaporated as soon as the program expired. Research has also found that even though wages are up and unemployment is down, voters perceive that the economy is poor. A majority of Americans believe we’re in a recession, though we are not. And when people don’t realize that the government is helping them, anti-government conservatives benefit.
Republicans, for their part, are more than willing to take credit for the few instances they’ve backed direct relief. In an unprecedented move, Donald Trump pushed to get his name printed on the stimulus checks sent early in the pandemic. “I’m sure people will be very happy to get a big, fat, beautiful check and my name is on it,” he sagely noted. Republicans don’t let details stop them from taking credit for a policy—including whether they supported it. Throughout this election cycle, GOP senators and representatives alike have boasted to their constituents about infrastructure projects they voted against.
Democrats ought to be just as aggressive in touting the direct discounts, credits, and services they’ve secured for working people. And they can start by reminding voters how far their policies reach. Take over-the-counter hearing aids. Hearing loss affects nearly two-thirds of those over 70. Even if someone doesn’t have hearing loss now, they might later in life. That means, in effect, that this is a universally beneficial policy—just like Medicare and Social Security, which anyone who lives into old age stands to benefit from. Democrats should constantly remind voters how they and the people they love will benefit from progressive policies.
And once they’ve reminded voters what they’ve done, Democrats ought to preview what they can deliver in the future. A smart memo to Democrats in The American Prospect proposed that candidates can directly address voters’ concerns about inflation by pledging to crack down on price gouging by corporations, reinstate the child tax credit, and lower more drug prices—the last being especially popular. And why wouldn’t it be? A study released last week found that more than 1 million American adults ration insulin because of the cost—a cost that could have been dramatically reduced if Republicans hadn’t blocked comprehensive price relief in the Inflation Reduction Act. Meanwhile, in a recent debate, Georgia GOP Senate candidate Herschel Walker suggested that people with diabetes should just “eat right.”
As midterm voting begins, Democrats are right to warn about the threats Republicans pose on such sweeping issues as abortion, climate, and democracy. But they shouldn’t refrain from zooming in on practical wins they’ve already secured. Democrats have made it easier for people to pay bills, care for their kids, and literally hear. They need to turn up the volume on that.