That the nation needs policies to improve the quality of life for working families is not a particularly controversial position among conservatives. Indeed, whole subsets of the conservative movement have been defining themselves with this issue for some time now. There is plenty of debate over the details, but this is an issue on which many conservatives come together, and even one where one could expect a reasonable discussion with Democrats, with the possibility of finding common ground and passing actual legislation.
Here, distilled into just 43 brief but potent seconds, is everything conservatives dislike about the Age of Obama. Not necessarily the policy proposal itself—about which more below—but the sneering tone of moral superiority, the suggestion that Europe is, like, totes better than America (obvi!) and the distinct sense the video gives that the highest levels of government have been hijacked by 24-year-olds who are totally, you know, nerding out on public policy. It’s enough to drive you to despair.
The problems with the video aren’t just stylistic. Yet again, as with the widely-mocked Life of Julia campaign from the 2012 elections, young women are portrayed as social monads whose only meaningful relationship is with the government, without whose intervention their lives will be bereft of fulfillment. Unsurprisingly, in a video about parenthood, fathers are nowhere to be seen.
The video is also needlessly divisive—which, of course, is not totally against the point. Inasmuch as this rhetorical approach makes political or legislative progress on the issue less rather than more likely, this is obviously an election year mobilization effort designed to get young Democratic women to the polls. It is electioneering masquerading as public policy, produced by a federal agency on your taxpayer dime.
There is a reasonable debate to be had on the subject of paid maternity leave. Many conservatives support the goals of such a policy—namely, making life easier for working mothers and decreasing the cost of having children—but don’t believe that such a mandate is the best way to achieve those goals. As Ross Douthat described the matter in 2011:
Government-guaranteed leave often gives less financial relief to a mother or father who is already at home full time. And Europe’s overall web of regulations and job protections makes the labor market more rigid and less accommodating to part-time work — which is the kind of work that mothers, especially, tend to want. (A recent survey of American parents found that 58 percent of married women with children preferred part-time to full-time work, compared with 20 percent of husbands.)
A more flexible alternative, championed by the conservative writers Ramesh Ponnuru and Robert Stein, would change the way we tax families, dramatically expanding the child tax credit in order to ease the burden on parents with young children. Their proposal would leave contemporary Baileys and Cratchits with more disposable income and more options without favoring one approach to parenting over another.
Obviously, neither generous parental leave nor an expanded child tax credit is a magic bullet for the problem of family breakdown. But if Democrats were championing the first idea and Republicans were championing the second, we would at least have the beginnings of a healthy conversation about family policy, instead of the conspicuous silence that surrounds the country’s biggest social crisis.
But never mind all that. All that matters is that Europe’s social democracies—the Germans, for goodness’ sake—are ahead of us.
Actually, the Department of Labor’s reliance on Germany for an example is curious. Why, Pakistan and Afghanistan are, according to this useful round-up, only slightly behind, at 12 and 13 weeks of mandated paid maternity leave, respectively. South Sudan also has 14 weeks, which actually comes off looking pretty miserly when compared to Uzbekistan’s 114 weeks and—yeepers—Mongolia’s 156 weeks. Surely all are better places to be a mother than backwards, ole’ USA, right?
Of course the Germans are entirely within their rights to give working mothers some lebensraum. But before using them as the gold standard of moral superiority, perhaps the folks at the Department of Labor should read… this.
At least it’s pro-family, I guess.