Whether you think Donald Trump won Sunday’s debate or simply survived by not spontaneously combusting onstage, the suspense has drained from this election. Hillary Clinton will in all likelihood become the 45th president of the United States, and the question I have is what she plans to do with that responsibility.
After all, a landslide victory culminating in the same legislative gridlock and on-the-margins executive action does no more for the American people than a nail-biter. And despite the Trump-splosion, Republicans are still likely to control the House, or at least have enough Senate seats to filibuster bills.
Democrats can still capitalize on the opportunity the Trump debacle offers, at least on domestic policy. After a jaw-dropping weekend, with the release of a tape of Trump boasting about sexual assault prompting dozens of Republican office-holders to ask their nominee to step aside, the best response would be to force those Trump rejecters to take an actual and not merely rhetorical position on respect for women.
The rationale most of these GOP politicians gave was ridiculous anyway. First of all, they would have to have been comatose not to see Trump for who he is until last Friday. And there was no need to open their statements with “As the parent of a daughter….” I don’t have kids, but somehow my brain can process unwanted groping as criminal activity. But if Republicans want to make this specifically about women and families, a Clinton administration can spend the next year continuing the conversation to the point of discomfort.
There are numerous bills that would compel Republican leaders to choose between their public statements and their votes, and most of them are part of Clinton’s existing platform. For example, she has called for the repeal of the Hyde amendment, which bans public funding for the legal medical procedure of abortion. Republicans telling women that they deserve dignity doesn’t square with denying them the ability to make choices about their own bodies. But the polarization around this issue runs so deep that, while a solid display of hypocrisy, the possibility of conservatives actually relenting is extremely remote.
Other policies hold more hope of a breakthrough, and some are directly tied to Trump’s behavior. President Obama just signed a bill called the Sexual Assault Survivor’s Rights Act, which mandates prompt reporting to rape victims of the results of evidence collection, and the preservation of that evidence. The law passed Congress unanimously. But though we’ve taken a step forward in how civilian victims of sexual assault are treated, members of the military still don’t have basic protections.
The chain of command still decides whether to act on reports of sexual assault, and the majority of women who report cases are retaliated against. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s Military Justice Improvement Act would put independent prosecutors in charge of whether cases move to trial. For years, Republicans have kept this out of the defense authorization bill, most recently in June. After a high-profile example of how powerful men can evade accountability for sexual predation, the Gillibrand bill should be flung in the face of every Republican claiming to abhor Trump’s conduct.
The Paycheck Fairness Act is another bill that would exacerbate the tension between Republican words and actions. One of the reasons men exploit power imbalances to prey on women is because they make more money and hold more high-ranking positions. Respect for women is clearly tied to providing equal pay for equal work, and Republicans abandoning Trump to hold onto some shred of support from women should have to answer for that.
The policy I think would have the best chance of passing even a Republican Congress in the wake of Trump is paid family leave. We are the only industrialized nation without this, as the recent NPR series “Stretched,” about working parents, painfully indicates. This is an issue for fathers struggling to help with child-rearing and bond with their offspring as well as mothers; it doesn’t map fully onto my “if you care about women, prove it” strategy. But unlike other policies, both presidential candidates have their own paid family leave bills. And the issue has broad appeal to downscale voters who don’t have employers that bestow these benefits upon them; in other words, a key segment of the Republican coalition. A strong push could get this over the line, or at least put Republicans in a terrible position, stuck between voters and corporate interests.
Moreover, Republicans want to frame their disavowal of Trump through the lens of their own families. But America shows through its policy framework that it doesn’t give a damn about families, not enough to even let a woman who has a baby on a Friday get so much as a day off from work the following Monday. And 2017 can offer a moment to force Republicans to come to terms with that.
Clinton has some work to do here as well. Her plan guarantees 12 weeks of paid leave to care for a newborn or a sick relative with up to two-thirds of salary. But she funds it through taxing the wealthy, instead of the common way most nations handle this, with a social insurance program. Kirsten Gillibrand’s FAMILY Act has a near-identical structure to Clinton’s plan, but funds it with a 0.2 percent payroll tax, giving everyone a stake and protecting the program from perennial changes in tax law.
The Clinton funding mechanism, given the disparity in our income tax system, makes for a nice talking point. But if you actually want to get something done, you need something durable that Republicans might actually agree to. Trump’s plan is half as long, with six weeks of paid leave just for mothers with new children, and gets funded through the unemployment system by eliminating fraud, which is absurd and illogical. But there’s at least a basis for negotiations there, backed by a strong message about Republicans needing to prove their pretensions of caring about families.
Paid family leave has overwhelming public support, high-level political attention and the potential for real action. All that’s missing is for the Republican Party to fulfill the meaning behind their rhetoric. That’s the way to salvage anything meaningful out of this horror show of an election. If by the end we value women and families a little bit more, maybe it’ll have even been worth it.