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Image: Sunrise over the U.S. Capitol ahead of former President Trump?EUR(TM)s impeachment trial in Washington
The sun rises over the U.S. Capitol ahead of former President Donald Trump's second impeachment trial on Feb. 8, 2021.Tom Brenner / Reuters

The Dems' COVID relief package is a break with the last 50 years

It's a phrase I generally take great pains to avoid, but let's make an exception: the American Rescue Plan represents a paradigm shift in our politics.


[Update: As expected, the Democrats' American Rescue Plan passed the House this afternoon. It cleared the chamber, 220 to 211. President Joe Biden is reportedly planning to sign it into law on Friday.]

After I spent some time gushing about the Democrats' COVID relief package, Rachel directed some good-natured ribbing my way on Monday night's show, telling Chris Hayes that I haven't "stopped kvelling" since the Senate passed the American Rescue Plan. Rachel added that she can barely understand me this week because I've basically been "ululating instead of talking."

All of that, of course, was both funny and true. It's also worth pausing to appreciate why.

Obviously, the legislation is worthy of celebration on the merits. This is an ambitious package that will do an enormous amount of good for families and communities that desperately need a hand. It's a bill that matches the seriousness of the crises that continue to take a toll on the nation, and should leave us better off.

There's also the excitement that comes with a break from the recent past. While Barack Obama scored some impressive victories in the final six years of his eight years as president, very few of them went through Congress. I'm of the opinion that the last time Congress approved a major progressive victory of historic significance was the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" -- and that vote was the week of Christmas 2010.

Or put another way, headed into today's House vote on the American Rescue Plan, it's been more than a decade since we've seen Congress and the White House take such a meaningful and consequential progressive step.

But to fully appreciate the scope of this legislative accomplishment, it's important to understand the political framework the United States has operated within over the last half-century.

Consider Chris Hayes' response on Monday night's show after Rachel asked for his perspective about the relief package:

"[I]t feels like we drove a stake through a certain kind of anti-welfare austerity politics that was incredibly powerful for four to five decades.... The kind of marking of an era of transition to the politics of government support and investment to me is as significant as anything that I've seen in the time I've covered politics."

Quite right. For a half-century, Democrats have entered nearly every major policy dispute by asking themselves a series of constrictive questions: "Are we aiming too high? Are we going too fast? What about the deficit? What about Republicans' 'welfare' talking points? What will the centrist pundits think? What kind of attack ads should we expect? Should we start compromising now or later? Before extending aid, should we consider strings such as work requirements?"

The questions were rooted in internalized Reagan-era assumptions about the public sector being inherently unreliable, the inefficacy of public investments, and the government being untrustworthy.

In 2021, Democrats had the sense to put all of that aside. What mattered was writing -- and passing -- a good bill that would make a material difference in Americans' lives.

It's a phrase I generally take great pains to avoid, but under the circumstances, I'll make an exception: the American Rescue Plan appears to represent a paradigm shift in our politics. When crafting their COVID relief package, Democrats didn't just come up with a different kind of solution, they also approached the issue in a different kind of way.

To be sure, it wasn't easy. A great many pieces had to fall into place to make such a victory possible. But they did, and we're all about to be better for it.