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An opportunity for Democrats, hiding in plain sight

The party lost power, but it’s becoming clearer how they can wield it more effectively next time.

President Biden handed Senator Joe Manchin the pen used to sign into law the Inflation Reduction Act at the White House on Aug. 16.Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post

Over the last two years, congressional Democrats made the most sweeping revision to America’s social contract in generations.

If you’re hazy on the details, I can’t say I blame you.

It hardly came up at all in the midterm elections.

A quick refresher, then.

Last year, at the height of the pandemic, Congress sent thousands of dollars in cash to millions of American families with kids — slashing childhood poverty by almost one-third.

A few months later, Democrats pushed through a mammoth infrastructure package that put $1 trillion into fixing roads, expanding rail, and wiring rural areas for broadband.

And in August, President Biden signed the most important climate measure in American history.

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Democrats felt that they couldn’t really talk about all this spending in campaign ads; Republicans, after all, were blaming “out of control” government spending for inflation.

So they leaned into the new culture wars instead — hammering Republicans on abortion rights and the Big Lie.

And it worked, limiting Democratic losses in what was shaping up to be a dreadful midterm election. But the strategy was not just a short-term success.

It also illuminated a promising long-term strategy.

For decades, Republicans used hot-button social issues like abortion and gay marriage to whip up popular support and then moved, with less fanfare, to make the sort of far-reaching economic changes they wanted: slashing business regulations and cutting taxes for the well-to-do.

Now, with the culture wars shifting in the Democrats’ direction, there may be an opportunity for a reversal.

A chance for liberals to build on the momentous policies that Congress enacted in the first part of the Biden administration.

A chance to go big again. And again. And again.

We’re getting ahead of ourselves, of course. It looks like Democrats are going to lose the House of Representatives, shutting off the possibility of major legislative accomplishment for at least a couple of years.

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But there is good reason to believe that broad concern about abortion rights and a deep unease with the GOP’s turn toward Trumpian bombast and division could usher the Democrats into power again in two or four or six years.

When they do reclaim control of Congress, there is much an ambitious party could do.

The Child Tax Credit expansion they pushed through last year — the measure that slashed child poverty so dramatically — was temporary. Making it permanent would improve the lives of millions of the country’s most vulnerable kids.

Parents and children gathered outside the White House to advocate for the Child Tax Credit in advance of the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health on Sept. 20.Larry French/Getty Images for SKDK

Democrats could also expand America’s shamefully meager programs for in-home care for the elderly. Big investments in child care and community college would be transformative.

And the historic climate package that President Biden signed in August was just the start of what’s required to wean ourselves off fossil fuels and help spare the world from the worst effects of global warming.

These policies poll quite well with voters. And in another election, when Democrats don’t have to worry about stoking concerns about inflation, they may be able to turn similar ideas into more valuable political assets — an economic message fusing with the cultural one.

It would be a strange denouement to the Trumpist era.

Trump and his imitators’ slash-and-burn politics have served them in all the obvious and worrisome ways. But they may, ultimately, prove more advantageous for their adversaries.

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They may give Democrats a path to power — and a chance to put more of the sweeping social change they have long coveted into place.


David Scharfenberg can be reached at david.scharfenberg@globe.com. Follow him @dscharfGlobe.