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Democrats Eager to Kick Open the Gender Gap for 2016

This morning the Center for American Progress hosted a women-only roundtable discussion featuring Hillary Clinton, Rep. Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Gillibrand among others. It’s purpose was clearly to keep the “war on women” meme front and center as Hillary gears up for 2016.

With Democrats struggling under the collapsed polling numbers of an
unpopular President, the real possibility of losing their Senate
Majority in two months and zero chance of retaking the House, it was
clear this morning’s round-table was not about things Democrats are
likely to accomplish in the next two years. The focus was on policy issues which might make good talking points for a 2016 campaign.

The sense that this was a discussion about the future was reinforced by the fact that there was relatively little partisan bashing this morning. Rep. DeLauro had a few tough words for Republicans but for the most part the participants seemed to have agreed not to name names.

The title of the event was “Why Women’s Economic Security Matters for All.” Panelists discussed the wage gap, the idea of support for child care and paid maternity leave. The tone of the event was not about women excelling at the top but about taking care of women closer to the bottom, the glass ceiling as filtered through Occupy or Thomas Piketty. Hillary was explicit on this point:

Of course the White House has spent months pushing the wage gap issue as an issue but hasn’t had much success. The Paycheck Fairness Act continues to be blocked in the Senate but women still seem to be moving toward Republicans this election.

Perhaps that’s in part because people have heard the message that the issue is more complicated than the White House claims. Or perhaps foreign policy concerns have simply overwhelmed the electorate leaving less oxygen for domestic political disputes.

There was one issue discussed at CAP this morning which had some of the hallmarks of a winning issue for Democrats. That issue was paid family leave. The U.S. requires that companies grant 12 weeks of unpaid leave to moms. However, that’s unusually low compared to developed countries around the world. Nations like France, Germany and the UK offer several months of paid leave followed by an even longer space for unpaid leave, sometimes up to a year or more.

Paid leave has the hallmarks of a strong Democratic issue for 2016. It’s easy to understand. It will appeal to younger women who are already part of the Democratic base and perhaps wondering how they’ll keep their jobs if they have children. And it appears to the beneficiaries to be money for nothing. Most importantly perhaps, paid leave benefits two categories of people who are extremely sympathetic, i.e. pregnant women and infants.

None of this means it will be good for the U.S. economy. Paid leave raises the cost of employing women and thus could even backfire, especially at the low end where the value of the job isn’t very high to begin with. Germany cut its paid leave program in half in 2007 and France, which has the most generous system, is currently a stagnant economy which is overdue for labor market reforms.

That said, politics and economics are not the same things. There is a reason why politicians like to be seen kissing babies and why Democrats expanded CHIP before tackling Obamacare. One can already envision the ads with Hillary Clinton, a new grandmother, making the case for more paid leave. Republicans who don’t want to see the gender gap decide the 2016 election should start sharpening their arguments on this issue now.

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