It’s not been a great night for former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton, who is losing the New Hampshire primary to Vermont senator Bernie Sanders by a margin of more than 20%.
Though there’s reason to believe that Clinton will bounce back in the Nevada caucuses on February 20 and the South Carolina primary on February 27, there’s one low-hanging piece of fruit that she could pluck that might instantly boost her campaign’s chances. It’s a policy that could attract Sanders supporters, emphasize the historic nature of her candidacy to become the first female president of the United States and put the eventual Republican presidential nominee on the defensive, all at once.
It’s paid parental leave — and the United States is one of the few countries in the developed world that doesn’t guarantee it. The OECD average is 17 weeks of maternity leave, the United Kingdom offers 39 weeks, Mexico offers six weeks, and many European countries offer far more to both mothers and fathers (though not always paid at 100% of one’s income):
In fact, extending Australia’s paid parental leave was at the heart of former prime minister Tony Abbott’s successful 2013 bid to return his conservative Liberal Party to government. Indeed, it was his subsequent u-turn on parental leave that cost Abbott his popularity and, ultimately, his premiership.
It was under Bill Clinton that the United States adopted universal unpaid parental leave in 1993 with the Family and Medical Leave Act. At the time, it was a huge step forward, giving most mothers a guaranteed 12 weeks of maternity leave, and one of the Clinton administration’s first — and most enduring — policy accomplishments.
It’s a natural progression for Democrats to extend a guarantee of 12 weeks of paid leave, and both Sanders and Clinton have embraced that goal in the 2016 campaign, though they disagree about how to pay for it. Sanders favors a payroll tax; Clinton favors a wealth tax. That already makes her plan somewhat more progressive than Sanders’s plan. But Clinton could easily outflank Sanders on the left by extending her plan to 17 weeks, the OECD average, or by including both mothers and fathers. Under US defense secretary Ashton Carter, the US military is set to unveil 12 weeks of paid maternity leave later this month — with virtually no opposition from the right.
In the 2016 campaign, you can easily express the other leading candidates’ policy plans in haiku format.
Trump: big wall along Mexico, no Muslims.
Cruz: repeal Obamacare, respect the Constitution.
Sanders: free health care and education, campaign finance reform.
But you can’t say the same about Clinton, whose message seems to be, ‘Vote for me because I have experience.’
That’s exactly why making paid parental leave the centerpiece of her campaign would be so shrewd. Clinton has tried to make a convincing case for supporters — that she’ll break the ultimate glass ceiling, that she’s a ‘fighter’ for progressive causes, and that she knows how to get things done in Washington. Paid parental leave is the one policy that allows her to tie all three of those messages together.
For one, it’s a plan that would go a long way to giving young voters (who have backed Sanders by a 7-to-1 margin in Iowa and New Hampshire), who are most likely to be starting their own families, a crucial new federal safety net.
It’s also a great talking point because who’s against motherhood?
Imagine Clinton on the stump, in the general election, demanding that a country as wealthy as the United States not force women to make a choice between having a career and being a mother. Evangelicals, who have traditionally backed socially conservative politicians, might especially warm to the idea, forcing a Republican-controlled Congress to take paid parental leave seriously. After the American right has dominated the discourse of ‘family values’ for decades, it would an act of supreme political jujitsu.