Why Last Night’s Democratic Debate Could Change the Conversation on Paid Maternity Leave

Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton spoke forcefully about the need for paid time off for new mothers. Will it force Republicans to embrace the issue?

BY Marc Daalder

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The Democratic candidates' emphasis on the lack of paid maternity leave in the United States will force Republican presidential candidates to confront the issue.

It seems silly to feel compelled to note such a thing, but thus is the state of electoral politics in the United States: Last night’s Democratic Presidential Debate was, if nothing else, extremely substantive. The candidates gave reasoned responses to questions about serious issues that the American people care about. Notably absent was the sensationalized name-calling and personal attacks characteristic of the two previous Republican debates . At one point, Sanders even denounced a vapid line of questioning from CNN anchor Anderson Cooper which concerned itself with Hillary Clinton’s email “scandal,” saying that “the American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails!” drawing perhaps the greatest applause of the entire debate.

But the greatest surprise of the night was the central role that paid family leave took in the debate. In her opening remarks, Clinton declared, “I believe in equal pay for equal work for women, but I also believe it's about time we had paid family leave for American families and join the rest of the world,” to great applause from the audience.

Minutes later, in a spirited defense of his democratic socialist views, Sanders contrasted the American healthcare system with that of other countries. “When you look around the world, you see every other major country providing health care to all people as a right, except the United States,” he argued. “You see every other major country saying to moms that, when you have a baby, we're not going to separate you from your newborn baby, because we are going to have … medical and family paid leave, like every other [major developed] country on earth.”

In the days leading up to the debate, numerous news outlets predicted the issues that would be discussed. None of the Washington Post’s 12 issues were paid leave, nor were any of The Wall Street Journal’s five. While TIME listed healthcare as one of its seven likely issues, paid leave was neither explicitly mentioned nor even hinted at.

That family leave still took such a central role—in Hillary’s opening speech, in Bernie’s first questions and in more references throughout the debate, including a question that the three front-running Democrats each answered eloquently—was a welcome surprise. Bernie Sanders was right when he said that the United States is the only major country that doesn’t provide paid leave to mothers. And as a recent In These Times investigation revealed, nearly a quarter of working American mothers spend two weeks or less with their newborn before returning to work.

Paid maternal leave is desperately needed in America, and the fact that the Democratic Debate framed it as such portends well for the passage of such policy in the near future. And last night’s highlighting of the issue on national television will also force Republican presidential candidates to confront it.

Some of the GOP candidates, like Carly Fiorina and Ted Cruz, have already outright rejected the idea. Both Fiorina and Cruz have stated they don’t believe paid leave should be enforced by the federal government. Cruz says he personally believes in maternity and paternity leave, “but I don’t think the federal government should be in the business of mandating them.”

Likewise, Fiorina has insisted that she doesn’t oppose paid maternity leave, she just “oppose[s] the federal government mandating paid maternity leave to every company out there.” Fiorina has also argued that federally-mandated paid family leave will force small businesses to “hire fewer people and create fewer jobs.”

When questioned about these views during the debate, Hillary Clinton referenced California’s paid family leave law. While this isn’t a national program, California is “a state as big as many countries in the world. And [the law] has not had the ill effects that the Republicans are always saying it will have.”

The wide appeal of this argument should force conservatives to support a generous paid leave policy. Republican candidate Marco Rubio recently announced his own paid family leave plan, which would be implemented at a national level by the federal government and would enable even part-time workers to enjoy paid leave. The plan would give tax incentives for employers that grant their employees between four and 12 weeks of paid leave.

While Rubio’s plan would still fall short in many ways (it would likely benefit highly-paid white collar employees far more than those that need the leave most), this is still a step in the right direction and an astounding turnaround from past years. When the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)—which only guarantees 12 weeks of unpaid leave—was up for debate in the 1990s, now-outgoing House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) called it “another example of yuppie empowerment.”

By placing paid leave front and center in the debate, the Democrats hope to reject that stigma and convince the GOP to support a simple federal leave law. Such a law is long overdue. When almost every other nation in the world—Papua New Guinea and Suriname might be the only exceptions—requires paid maternity leave, Bernie Sanders is right to call our system an “international embarrassment.” Hopefully, the entire Democratic presidential field’s focus on paid maternal leave last night will be enough to force the Republican Party to end its defense of that embarrassment.

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Marc Daalder is a journalist based in Detroit, Michigan and Wellington, NZ who writes on politics, public housing, and international relations. Twitter: @marcdaalder.

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