Bold Stroke

Hillary Clinton’s Golden Ticket: Paid Family Medical Leave

Forget about liberals—by pushing the issue in a 2016 presidential campaign, Clinton can galvanize women and show everyone she has guts.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty

“Hillary and the liberals” seems to be this week’s Clintonland topic. The New Republic’s Noam Scheiber has a big piece out describing “how Hillary won over the skeptical left.” His evidence is solid enough. He quotes party activists and a few insiders as saying, in essence, that she simply has worn down their resistance over time (he oddly doesn’t address what I think is the main thing—they want to win).

I think the proposition is still debatable, or at least still in formation. She has a campaign team to name, assuming she runs, and a whole raft of positions yet to take. And at some point or another, she’s bound to do something that will alienate or annoy her party’s liberal wing. It’s just the logic of the situation—a Democratic woman, even one so well known, will have to take some positions to show she’s “tough” and willing to “stand up to the base” (I’m not endorsing this phenomenon, just describing it). And she will do that.

But that doesn’t mean she has to saunter toward the center on every issue. Indeed, I think she’d be well advised to take a small number of high-profile liberal-populist positions. And there are some liberal-populist positions that, polling suggests, transcend those labels because to a lot of people, they just make common sense. I have one in particular in mind.

I think for her 2016 campaign, Clinton should make paid family leave a—no; the!—central plank. Now, depending on who you are, I know what you’re thinking. If you’re a conservative, you’re licking your chops: Sure, Hillary, take Tomasky’s stupid advice. We’ll paint the town red calling you a socialist who wants to bankrupt American businesses and indoctrinate its children by forcing them to suckle at the state’s teat. If you’re a centrist Democrat, I’ve just made you really nervous, because you fear the conservatives are right on this one, and a Clinton who proposed such a scheme would be easy pickings, and hello, President Paul.

If you’re a liberal, you’re thinking: great idea, do it, Hillary! And if you’re a regular American who doesn’t pay much attention to politics or have intense political convictions, I bet you just might well be thinking: what? The United States doesn’t have paid family leave?

Nope, we don’t, and as usual, among advanced countries, we’re all alone in last place. (It’s called “family leave” these days and not maternity leave, by the way, because proposals would allow paid leave both for new parents and for those caring for a very ill family member.) Some states have enacted such policies. California went first around a decade ago, New Jersey struck second in 2008 (under Gov. Jon Corzine, not Chris Christie), and Rhode Island came on board this year. A number of progressive-minded companies offer paid family leave, but that’s a matter of their decency, not law.

The laws that exist are modest. New Jersey’s, for example, is structured to give a person taking such leave at most two-thirds of his or her pay for six weeks. In California, it’s 55 percent for six weeks. In Rhode Island, it’s about the same percentage, but for four weeks. These aren’t what you’d call overly generous proposals. In France, it’s 100 percent for 16 weeks. Mon dieu, you say, that’s France. But in Germany, which even American conservatives respect a little more in economic terms, it’s 100 percent pay for 14 weeks, and 65 percent for an astonishing 12 to 14 months.

As I noted, we know what the right would say. Her opponent would likely make it a major campaign issue. To which a Clinton campaign should say: Bring it on. I think there are reasons to believe that such a position would be fantastic for Clinton politically. In a nutshell, it’s popular. A survey commissioned in 2012 by a pro-leave group found that respondents supported the idea by 63 to 29 percent. Democrats were of course strongly in favor (85-10), but independents were at a still quite favorable 54-34, and even Republicans weren’t against it—they were evenly split at 47-48.

Far from being hammered by the right over such a proposal, I think Clinton could turn the tables. What percentage of women are going to be against this? In the pro-leave group’s poll, it was just 23 percent. Of course the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable are going to go ape, but here we have facts, and the known facts suggest that in California paid leave has not been the nightmare that businesses feared. One study, by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, found that 89 percent of participating businesses reported a positive or no noticeable effect on productivity; 91 percent said the same about profitability and performance; 99 percent said the same about morale. Clinton will be able to find plenty of employers in California, and presumably New Jersey, who will sit in front of a camera for 30 seconds and testify that the law is just fine by them.

Clinton would accomplish three additional goals by adopting and pushing this policy, whose current chief champions at the federal level are Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT). First, Clinton would be fulfilling a policy goal put into motion by her husband, who signed into the law the first (unpaid) medical leave act, so it would be a legacy-building measure that ol’ Bill could even help sell to the fellas. Second, she would not only placate the base by doing this, she’d galvanize it (and, let’s be honest, give herself room to take less progressive positions on some other matters). And third, she’d be checking the “bold” box in a huge way. People have always said of her—I’ve said it myself, while covering her first Senate race, and since—that she’s too cautious as a politician. Needs to show some—to use a word she would surely have learned while she was senatoring around New York—kishkes. Adopting paid family leave, and defending it with passion against all the crazy attacks, would show everyone that she has the guts to take a position that will invite the other side’s ire. And by the way, the wingers would overplay their hand, as they always have with her, and provoke the kind of sympathetic backlash that helped get her elected to the Senate in the first place.

Now I know that she just recently said of paid family leave at a CNN town hall event that “I don’t think, politically, we could get it now.” Say I, that’s just all the more reason for her to pull a 180 and decide it is America’s destiny to have it and hers to make it happen. It would win her states she wouldn’t otherwise win, and if she got it enacted, it alone—yes, it alone!—would assure her a coveted place in presidential history. It’s hard to imagine a more perfect marriage of candidate and issue.