The Coming Democratic Campaign for Universal Childcare?

Are childcare and family policies the next policy priorities of the Democratic party, the way that healthcare was for roughly 20 years?  Jonathan Chait says yes, and I’m inclined to agree.  The passage of Obamacare took one major issue “off the table” – it hasn’t been “fixed”, but an infrastructure is now in place that will allow for incremental changes to the national healthcare system.  Which is great, but incrementalism doesn’t get people to the polls.  The party needs a galvanizing issue -particularly one that a political entrepreneur could use during the 2016 primary campaign.

Childcare and family policies have a great deal to recommend them – first and most obvious the policy benefits.  Economically, it can be aimed at removing much of the penalty that women face in the workplace by socializing many of the costs that are currently borne solely by mothers.  As a matter of social justice, it will remove the inequity in childcare that places disproportionate burdens on low-income mothers, children, and families.

Solely to focus on the naked politics: childcare and family policies seem like a great weapon for the Democrats.  It plays to their advantages; voters trust Democrats much more on these sorts of policies.  Tactically, while the Democrats are doing legendarily well with unmarried women, married women are actually somewhat Republican.  A platform putting the interests of married women first and foremost could appeal to both unmarried and married women (more so than focusing on divisive interests like abortion), and poorly handled Republican opposition could lead to a backlash.  Childcare policy – unlike many policies that harm the wealthy or particular industries – wouldn’t divide the Democratic coalition.

Furthermore, unlike virtually all other Democratic policy priorities, this mostly wouldn’t involve taking on incumbent interests. Healthcare was such a rough fight largely because it was fought by Big Health.  Cap-and-trade failed against the bitter opposition of the business community.  The Democrats have made limited success in taxing the rich.  But there’s no Big Childcare that would be threatened.  Large segments of the business community might be mildly to somewhat supportive (unless it was paid for by taxing them).  In short, policy pledges to improve childcare without specifying pay-fors have the opportunity to be broadly useful in electioneering and face little organized opposition when actually passing policy.

It is for these political virtues, even more so than the policy virtues, that I expect childcare and family policy to be the next Democratic policy priority and possibly the ground on which 2016 is fought.


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