Ivanka Trump is on a quest to brand herself as a champion of women in the workplace, a sort of millennial Sheryl Sandberg. She is largely responsible for getting her epically misogynist father to embrace paid family leave and subsidized child care, which he did in a short speech on Tuesday evening. But much credit also belongs to Hillary Clinton, who took issues that have been largely absent from politics for 40 years and put them at the center of her presidential agenda. Thanks to Clinton, government support for working parents of young children has become something that Trump feels like he has to compete on, rather than simply to oppose. For the moment, we have a bipartisan consensus that the federal government should address the fact that “the United States is the only industrialized nation in the world that does not provide new mothers with paid maternity leave,” as Ivanka said in introducing her father last night.
This is not to say Donald Trump’s proposal is a good one. He says he will fund six weeks of unemployment benefits for new mothers who need paid leave by weeding out fraud and abuse in the unemployment insurance program. The numbers, naturally, don’t add up. (Trump, of course, often promises to pay for things through a “waste, fraud, and abuse” crackdown; it’s the imaginary pot of gold that lets him pretend his financial plans aren’t whimsical and contradictory.) The plan only cites “maternity” leave, not parental leave, which is keeping with Trump’s assumption that infant care is strictly a wife’s job. (It’s unclear whether the leave would be available to adoptive parents.) His proposals to make child care tax-deductible—as well as to offer new tax savings on private school tuition—do much more for the upper middle class than the working poor: Families too poor to pay income tax aren’t helped by the chance to deduct tens of thousands of dollars from their income tax bill. Under Trump’s plan, the working poor would be eligible for a rebate of up to $1,200, which is helpful but far too little to meaningfully offset the overall crushing cost of child care.
Nevertheless, the fact that Trump felt compelled to offer a child care plan at all is one of the few bright spots in this ghastly election season. “That even he feels pressured to come out with policies on these issues is a barometer of just how badly voters are demanding relief,” says Vivien Labaton, co-director of Make It Work Action, a group that advocates for working parents.*
In 1971, Richard Nixon vetoed a bipartisan child care bill on the grounds that mothers, not the federal government, should raise children. Ever since then, Democrats as well as Republicans have been reluctant to get involved in child care, lest they spark a culture war. Conservatives complain that attempts to ease financial burdens on working parents are biased against families with stay-at-home mothers. Democrats spent decades cowed by charges that they are hostile to traditional families and eager to impose costly entitlements on taxpayers. Meanwhile, America stumbled forward with family policies designed for couples that divide their responsibilities in the style of Trump and his wife, Melania. As Trump once told Howard Stern about his children, “I won’t do anything to take care of them. I’ll supply funds and she’ll take care of the kids.”
Now, the debate about American family policy has finally started to catch up to the reality that 64 percent of mothers with children younger than 6 work. Responding to mounting feminist pressure, Clinton made paid family leave and child care a major part of her platform. As she said in a big economic address at the start of her campaign, “It’s time to recognize that quality, affordable child care is not a luxury—it’s a growth strategy.” When Trump, speaking Tuesday, said that Clinton “has no child care plan,” he was blithely lying; her policy is far more detailed and far-reaching than his. Among other things, it would cap the cost of child care at 10 percent of a family’s income. (Right now, in every state, average child care costs are at least 30 percent of a minimum-wage worker’s earnings.)
Still, this is a new and improved sort of Republican dishonesty. In the past, Republicans never hit Democrats for lacking child care proposals. Instead, they pretended that even mild attempts to support working parents were plots against motherhood. As Pat Robertson said at the 1992 Republican convention, “When Bill and Hillary Clinton talk about family values, they are not talking about either families or values. They are talking about a radical plan to destroy the traditional family.” When Republicans try to one-up Democrats on federal support for child care, it means we’re no longer arguing about whether federal support for child care is a good thing.
Plenty of elite conservatives realize that Trump’s proposal shifts the debate into Democratic territory. “Mr. Trump is obviously trying to close the gap with Hillary Clinton on women voters,” Bill O’Reilly said Tuesday night. “But did he alienate some Republicans with a new entitlement?” Yet as we’ve seen with the dramatic increase in GOP approval of Vladimir Putin, a large number of ordinary Republicans are ready to scrap once-cherished convictions to follow their dear leader. If they abandon their opposition to entitlements for working parents, that’s something to celebrate. Sometimes a total lack of principle is better than a bad one.