Here’s what happens every election cycle: pundits demand that politicians offer the country new ideas. Then, if and when a candidate actually does propose innovative policies, the news media pays little attention, chasing scandals or, all too often, fake scandals instead. Remember the extensive coverage last month, when Hillary Clinton laid out an ambitious mental health agenda? Neither do I.
For that matter, even the demand for new ideas is highly questionable, since there are plenty of good old ideas that haven’t been put into effect. Most advanced countries implemented some form of guaranteed health coverage decades if not generations ago. Does this mean that we should dismiss Obamacare as no big deal, since it’s just implementing a tired old agenda? The 20 million Americans who gained health coverage would beg to differ.
Still, there really are some interesting new ideas coming from one of the campaigns, and they arguably tell us a lot about how Clinton would govern.
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Wait – what about the other side? Aren’t Republicans also offering new ideas? Well, I guess proposing to round up and deport 11 million people counts as a new idea. And Republicans in Congress seem to have moved past their tradition of proposing tax cuts that deliver most of their benefits to the wealthy. Now they are, instead, proposing tax cuts that deliver all of their benefits to the 1 percent – OK, actually just 99.6 percent, but who’s counting?
Back to Clinton: Much of her policy agenda could be characterized as a third Obama term, building on the center-left policies of the past eight years. That would hardly be a trivial matter. For example, independent estimates suggest that her proposed enhancements to the Affordable Care Act would extend health coverage to around 10 million more people, whereas Donald Trump’s proposed repeal of the act would cause around 20 million people to lose coverage.
In addition to defending and extending President Barack Obama’s achievements, however, Clinton is pushing a distinctive agenda centered around support for working parents. This isn’t a completely new idea, but the scale of the Clinton proposals is off the charts compared with anything that has gone before. And as I said, this tells us a lot about her priorities.
One piece of that agenda involves 12 weeks of paid family leave to care for new children, help sick relatives, or recover from illness or injury. Oh, and in case you were wondering, Trump, who has offered his own threadbare version of a maternal leave plan, was pants-on-fire lying when he claimed that his opponent has no such plan. Are you surprised?
Another, even more striking piece involves helping families with young children in several ways, especially through universal preschool and public outlays – subsidies and tax credits – to hold down the cost of child care (the campaign sets a target of no more than 10 percent of income.)
And everything we know, both about Clinton’s long-term interests and her current choices of advisers, suggests that family-centered issues are close to her heart. I was personally struck by the campaign’s choice of Heather Boushey, a leading expert on work-life balance issues, as chief economist for the Clinton transition team. That tells me a lot about priorities.
But why should helping working parents be such a priority? It looks to me like an attempt to focus on the problems of the real America – not the white, rural “real America” of right-wing fantasies, but the real, real America in which most of our fellow citizens live. And that America is one in which working parents are the norm, in which stay-at-home mothers are a distinct minority, and in which the problem of how to take care of children while making ends meet is central to many people’s lives.
The numbers are striking: 64 percent of women with children younger than 6 are in the paid labor force, up from 39 percent in 1975. Most of these working mothers are surely doing so out of economic necessity, and we as a society need to find a way to reconcile this reality with the need to raise our children well.
I suppose a free market purist might question why we need government policies to help deal with this new reality. But we are, after all, talking about the fate of children, who are to some extent a common responsibility. Furthermore, child care economics is in some ways like health economics: for a variety of reasons, mostly coming down to the fact that we’re dealing with people, not things, we can’t trust unregulated markets to deliver a decent outcome.
So anyone who complains that there aren’t big new ideas in this campaign simply isn’t paying attention. One candidate, at least, has ideas that would make a big, positive difference to millions of American families.