Ron Radosh

The Populist-Conservative Split over the Trump Family-Leave Plan

On Tuesday night, Donald Trump unveiled his new child-care plan. Its “signature element,” as the New York Times emphasized, is the six weeks of paid maternity leave for new mothers whose employers do not provide such coverage. It also includes a reordering of the tax code so that working parents can take an income tax deduction for the care of up to four children and older-adult dependents. The deduction would be made available to those individuals who earn up to $250,000, such as single mothers, and up to $500,000 for a married couple who file a joint return. Those who are poor or earn far less would receive a spending rebate of $1200 a year. They would also be able to set up a dependent care savings account which the government would match by $500 a year.

Critics immediately pounced on some of the proposals as being far from adequate, especially when the plan applies to low-income families. As Maya Harris, Hillary Clinton’s senior policy adviser, told the Times: “Donald Trump released a regressive and insufficient ‘maternity leave’ policy that is out of touch, half-baked and ignores the way Americans live and work today.”

Their main criticism is that Trump is advancing his plan right now because he needs to get the votes of Republican suburban women. So far polls reveal that not enough of them are planning to vote for him. In other words, Trump was engaging in a cynical ploy for purely political reasons.

Trump’s announcement of his plan is causing a major crisis in Republican and conservative circles because it is a bold departure from the traditional conservative view. Writing in Slate, National Review editor Reihan Salam argues that Trump has forced the GOP into an “ideological civil war,” caused by his repudiation of the major tenets of Republican economic orthodoxy. Now Trump has gone even further by proposing to expand the social safety net. Writing in the Washington Post, Robert Costa and Sean Sullivan explain that “conservative Republicans, in particular, have long seen a mandated expansion of the social safety net as anathema to their attempts to shrink government spending and give companies more control over their leave policies.”

That is why on a Fox News panel last night Charles Krauthammer said the following:

What [Trump] is proposing is to out-Democrats the Democrats. This is an enormous new entitlement. It will blow the debt, and when he says the mandate, he’s going to mandate from Washington, isn’t that the one thing that Republicans all agree upon of the government stepping in and telling private industry what to do? He says that will be paid for by taking out waste, fraud, and abuse from the unemployment insurance system. If you believe that, you will believe anything.

Is Krauthammer correct that Trump’s plan is antithetical to what conservatives support? Those conservatives who have argued that what Republicans have to do is not just favor supply-side breaks for the wealthy, but develop programs that appeal to regular middle-class and working-class Americans, strongly disagree.

Writing in both National Affairs and later in National Review, Abby M. Mccloskey has made a strong case in favor of such a policy being a part of a conservative reform agenda. Indeed, she writes in NR that “the United States is the only country in the developed world without a national paid-maternity-leave program.”  She concludes her NA article with these words:

The best conservative policies have always aimed to enable human flourishing and to encourage opportunity for all. Republicans should carry on this tradition by ensuring that government does not discourage or prevent women from having meaningful, rewarding careers.

Some of these reforms fit easily into the broader Republican agenda, and all of them can and should be advanced with conservative values in mind. Conservatives should be the foremost champions of women’s work and upward economic mobility, not just because it’s good politics but because it’s good for women and good for the economy. Removing barriers to women’s work and ensuring that women are adequately compensated for their contributions to the economy should be a priority.

Salam argues that rather than a left-wing program, Mccloskey’s plan is only a “modest tweak to the safety net” that would help working women tremendously, and “is cheap, pro-growth, and business-friendly.” It is, he says, a “modest, taxpayer-funded maternity-leave benefit that would serve as a safety net for those currently without paid leave.” And he praises Trump for being “willing to take her ideas seriously.”

It is a good contrast to the plan Hillary Clinton puts forth, which she says will be financed by  taxing “the rich.” Most observers understand that would hardly amount to enough to fund her most ambitious plan, and would eventually become a tax on the middle class and then most working Americans. By pitting average Americans against the rich, her plan also has the tinge of class warfare to it.

As Salam concludes in Slate, the era of small-government conservatism is collapsing, and that of populists who believe “there is a place for government in bettering the lives of working-people” is ascending. Whether or not one sees this as a cynical move by Trump to get the women’s vote, the issue itself is not without merit.