The Corner

The ‘Don’t Try to Out-Democrat the Democrats’ Argument Isn’t an Argument

In response to ‘Nobody gives a good [blank] you speech like Rudy Giuliani.’

Heather Wilhelm’s most recent NRO column has an entertaining send-up of the interview Ivanka Trump gave to Cosmo last week, in which Ivanka seemed surprised at the reporter’s skeptical view of her father’s recently announced family policy proposals.

Ivanka certainly could have been better prepared, but I’m less convinced by the broader point Heather makes: that this underscores how Trump’s family policy ideas are a lame attempt to “out-Democrat the Democrats.”

There are certainly problems with Trump’s plan and it’s far from clear that Republicans should support government-run maternity leave. But Wilhelm’s argument is a common one, and it typically involves a lot of question-begging.

It’s frequently offered, for instance, as a criticism of Republicans who propose substantial middle-class tax relief, such as through a bigger child credit. Even though that amounts to letting people keep more of their own money, certain strands of conservatives, like the Wall Street Journal editorial board, say the ideas are a slippery slope: This is a giveaway, and Democrats will always outdo Republicans on the giveaways.

But there are two questionable assumptions there:

1. It’s a giveaway.

In Wilhelm’s case, the assumption is that government-funded paid family leave is a through-and-through liberal idea. Is it?

Or, more precisely, is it there nothing here Republicans should consider, given that it’s arguably pro-family, great for kids and mothers, low-cost, and quite popular? Similarly, with proposals for a bigger child tax credit, conservative critics should engage with the argument that it compensates parents for the redistribution of our welfare state (which isn’t going anywhere), rather than just claiming it’s middle-class welfare.

Government-paid maternity leave may sound like a vaguely European, socialist idea, but as Abby McCloskey has argued, it’s a little more complicated than that. It’s odd that we offer, say, a government-guaranteed benefit for those who lose their jobs but not even a short benefit for mothers giving birth. In both cases, it’s possible to provide a socially useful benefit without constructing a European-style welfare state.

I’m all for alternative ways to encourage paid leave, such as the Marco Rubio/Deb Fischer approach, or new ways to help people save for it, but those approaches could still come up short for low-income women (disclosure: I worked for Rubio’s presidential campaign). Paid maternity leave is not going to be provided by just letting the market work; a broad-based benefit certainly seems at least worth a hearing from conservatives who prize equality of opportunity.

2. Once they get this giveaway, Americans will want the Democrats’ bigger giveaway.

The left-leaning Twittersphere enjoyed some chuckles about how Ivanka got tripped up about whether two gay men should get paid maternity leave, but do most Americans really care? The target here is persuadable voters, not Cosmo reporters.

When Rubio rolled out his plan to incentivize paid leave, he got no love from liberals: Top female Democrats lashed out in response; one of Hillary Clinton’s top policy staffers wrote a rapid-response op-ed trying to tear it down. The backlash is proof of success, not failure — Rubio’s idea clearly scared Democrats into feeling vulnerable on the issue.

The median voter is not terribly conservative, but he’s also not generally interested in Democrats’ constantly leftward policy pushes. Lots of Americans surely prefer the idea of a limited maternity-leave benefit over either a massive Scandinavian-style program and over no maternity-leave guarantee at all. Lots of voters, too, would probably prefer a bigger child tax credit to a new child-care tax deduction and more Headstart. The best way to prevent Democrats’ from getting their way, after all, is to offer policies that will persuade voters to vote for Republicans.

Can Republicans sometimes forget their principles and fall prey to trying to please the left-leaning media or giveaway-hungry voters? Certainly. But you actually have to explain why a particular proposal fits that pattern, not just assume it does and then dismiss it.

Patrick BrennanPatrick Brennan is a writer and policy analyst based in Washington, D.C. He was Director of Digital Content for Marco Rubio's presidential campaign, writing op-eds, policy content, and leading the ...