Children and families stage a sit-in at the Hart Senate office building on Capitol Hill on July 26. (Michael Reynolds/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
Columnist

Democrats have been casting about for a winning theme this November. Here’s one suggestion: Kids.

After all, despite once declaring themselves the party of family values, Republican politicians have more recently ceded this territory. The GOP is now the party of state-sanctioned child abuse, of taking health care away from poor children, of leaving young immigrant “dreamers” in legal limbo.

It is GOP policy, and GOP policy alone, that has ripped thousands of immigrant children from their parents and locked them in cages, where they cannot be held or comforted when they cry.

It is these policies that have caused young children to not recognize their own parents when finally reunited through a federal court order. Or to enraging cases like one the Nation reported last week, about a 6-year-old girl who was separated from her mother and then sexually abused multiple times in an immigrant detention center. There, the child was asked to sign a form acknowledging it was her responsibility to stay away from her abuser.

When it comes to callousness toward the young and the vulnerable, Washington Republicans have also found other ways to put their money where their mouth is.

For 114 days, Republican lawmakers let lapse federal funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program — which 9 million low- and moderate-income children depend on — while the party instead pursued tax cuts for the wealthy. Last year, it likewise tried (but failed) to ax funding for Medicaid, which another 37 million poor children relied on for care in 2017.

Under current law, only 9 percent of the federal budget is spent on children, through programs such as Medicaid and special education. That share is projected to fall over the next decade, as the country ages and spends more money on other priorities, according to a new report from the Urban Institute.

And if President Trump gets his way, he would snatch more money away from children.

His administration’s 2019 budget slashes funding for children’s programs almost across the board. Relative to spending under current law, for instance, he would cut child-care assistance and Head Start funding by about 30 percent each.

And last week, we learned the administration is killing two separate rules that would help prevent students from being scammed by for-profit programs offering useless degrees. Meanwhile, instead of helping young people gain skills that will be useful in our increasingly high-tech and service-driven economy, Trump fixates on reviving jobs in dying industries such as coal.

There is a theme here. Trump and his partisans care mostly about indulging constituencies of the past.

Which gives Democrats an opening to fight for the future. Starting with proposals focused on children.

And I don’t mean only the obvious proposals like “don’t rip babies from their mothers’ breasts.” There are lots of popular, ambitious ideas that could improve children’s well-being — and pay dividends in an economy that requires turning today’s children into tomorrow’s healthy, productive, taxpaying adults.

Such proposals include expanding access to high-quality early-childhood education, a cost-effective strategy for reducing future criminal-justice system costs and other social spending.

Or offering parents paid leave, which is supposedly a priority of the Trump administration, though aside from a recent Senate hearing, still hasn’t gotten much traction.

Or expanding parents’ access to Medicaid, which has been shown to improve health outcomes for their children.

These are all objectives that are not only important to the women and millennials who increasingly dominate the Democratic base. Policies such as paid family leave and early-childhood education have broad bipartisan appeal, too.

Because, hey, it’s not exactly controversial to be pro-child.

So why aren’t pro-child policies already the centerpiece of either party’s platform, instead of far down on the list of political promises?

One argument against putting kids front and center is that off-year elections tend to draw an older electorate. The Americans who show up to vote are less likely to have minor children and, thus, may support but are less personally motivated by, say, impassioned pleas about preschool.

But Democratic pollsters I spoke with, such as Lake Research’s Celinda Lake, said seniors are nonetheless more concerned about children today than they ever have been during past election cycles. And it is not only because children feature prominently in many of today’s hot-button issues, such as immigration and gun violence. Children are also a useful metaphor for where the country is headed.

“There’s policy, and there’s values, and this is about setting up a values debate with Republicans,” Anna Greenberg of the research firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner tells me. “Values means who you are, and what you are for.”

And, so far, Republicans have shown us they’re for putting children in cages.