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Opinion Take the win, Democrats, and don’t look back

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi escorts President Biden at the U.S. Capitol after he spoke to the House Democratic Caucus on Oct. 28. (Alexander Drago/Reuters)

Celebrate victory. Explain what you’ve achieved. Defend it from attack. Change the public conversation in your favor. Build on success to make more progress.

And for God’s sake, don’t moan about what might have been.

President Biden and Democrats in Congress are on the cusp of ending their long journey through legislative hell by enacting a remarkable list of practical, progressive programs.

This will confront them with a choice. They can follow the well-tested rules for champions of social change. Or they can repeat past mistakes by letting their opponents define what they have done and complain about the things left undone.

A victory by Republican Glenn Youngkin in Tuesday’s Virginia governor’s race would unleash recriminations guaranteed to make this task even harder. If Democrat Terry McAuliffe hangs on to win, it will be Republicans forced into soul-searching about the steep costs of their continuing fealty to Donald Trump.

But however it turns out, the Virginia contest should force Democrats to confront the imperative of shifting the terms of the political debate. In a state Biden carried by 10 points, Youngkin managed to dominate the campaign’s final weeks with a shameful focus on critical race theory — which is not taught anywhere in the state — and the suppression of challenging books in high school curriculums.

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Youngkin’s trafficking in racial backlash could work as well as it did, because Democrats have fallen short in fulfilling one of the most important aspirations of the Biden era. They hoped that politics could be defined more by how government can get useful things done and less by manufactured issues that promote moral panic among conservatives and sharpen divisions around race, immigration and culture.

Passing Biden’s program and defending it successfully offer all wings of his party the best opportunity they will have to push the day-to-day dialogue toward the tangible and the achievable.

Begin with the basics: Trump spent four years promising investments in the nation’s physical infrastructure. Biden got it done with bipartisan support. The bill’s provisions to close the broadband gap will be especially helpful to the parts of the country that have seen little in return for their support for Trumpism.

The Build Back Better bill includes a record investment to fight climate change, new programs for affordable housing and increased assistance to make postsecondary education more affordable. But it may have its most important social impact by turning talk about “family values” from a slogan used to tear us apart into support for families and kids. This could bring us together.

For families earning up to $150,000 annually, it extends the child tax credit of $300 a month for each child for parents of kids under 6, and $250 a month for each child aged 6 to 17. It’s a policy many conservatives have endorsed.

The bill caps child-care spending for most families at 7 percent of their income, and in what is a really big deal, it creates a universal pre-K program for all 3- and 4-year-olds. At the other end of life, the bill expands home care services for the elderly and provides for a new hearing benefit under Medicare. It also brings health coverage to up to 4 million Americans, many of them locked out of the benefits of Obamacare in Republican states.

None of this is financed by debt, and the measure underscores that the concentration of gains in income and wealth at the top mean that all of the bill’s benefits can be paid for with higher taxes on corporations and the very well-off. This may be the most underappreciated part of the deal: After years of rising inequality, those doing the best are being asked to kick in a little for those who are struggling.

Could even more have been done if Democrats enjoyed larger House and Senate majorities? Sure. But that’s what future elections are about, and these bills should be used to set up the debate going forward.

Republicans hope a lack of focus on specifics will make it easy for them to attack the abstraction of “big spending.” This is why they must be pressed to say which provisions they’d repeal or let expire. Do they want to cut health care or child care so the really rich and corporations can pay less in taxes?

Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.) argues the program is designed to reduce anxieties about “the things that keep families up at night.” It’s a good formulation. Which side proposes to increase insomnia levels?

Progressives, in the meantime, should cheer what they accomplished and use success as a springboard for further progress on family and medical leave, health care and climate action.

Social change almost always comes in steps: from a limited Social Security program to the comprehensive system we have today; from civil rights to voting rights; from Medicare to the Affordable Care Act. Smart change agents take the wins they can get — and look forward, not back.