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Thursday, February 21 , 2019, 7:15 pm | Partly Cloudy 49º


Joe Conason: Hillary Clinton Finally Spoke Up About Inequality — 20 Years Ago

Following Hillary Clinton's first major campaign speech last Saturday, the purveyors of conventional wisdom have assured us repeatedly that she is tacking toward the left to deflect her challengers and mollify her party's liberal base. Such assertions usually hint knowingly that Clinton is not a progressive herself, but merely swayed in that direction by polls and consultants.

On the eve of her kickoff event in Four Freedoms Park — New York's riverfront memorial to its favorite son, Franklin Delano Roosevelt — I picked up a copy of her 1996 bestseller, It Takes a Village. Published during an era when the nation showed few signs of turning leftward, Clinton's first book offered pithy arguments for the same progressive priorities that she is emphasizing today. Consider the views she expressed on family leave — and, in particular, the limitations of the law signed by her husband in 1993:

"As I have mentioned, the Family and Medical Leave Act guarantees unpaid leave to employees in firms with more than 50 workers. That is a good beginning. Many parents, however, cannot afford to forgo pay for even a few weeks, and very few employers in America offer paid maternity and paternity leave. ... Other countries have figured out that honoring the family by giving it adequate time for caregiving is not only right for the family and smart for society but good for employers, who reap the benefits of workers' increased loyalty and peace of mind. The Germans, for example, guarantee working mothers 14 weeks' maternity leave (six weeks before and eight weeks after delivery) at full salary ... ."

As first lady, Clinton obviously was in no position to demand that her husband's administration (or the Republican-dominated Congress, for that matter) should institute paid family leave. But her own opinion was clear enough. So was her view of early childhood education, the subject of a full chapter of her book and now highlighted in her big speech:

"Imagine a country in which nearly all children between the ages of 3 and 5 attend preschool in sparkling classrooms, with teachers recruited and trained as child care professionals. Imagine a country that conceives of child care as a program to 'welcome' children into the larger community and 'awaken' their potential for learning and growing. ... It may sound too good to be true, but it's not. ... More than 90 percent of French children between ages 3 and 5 attend free or inexpensive preschools called ecoles maternelles. ... While I was in France, I had conversations with a number of political leaders, from Socialists to Conservatives. 'How,' I asked, 'can you transcend your political differences and come to an agreement on the issue of government-subsidized child care?' One after another of them looked at me in astonishment. 'How can you not invest in children and expect to have a healthy country?' was the reply I heard over and over again."

In the penultimate chapter, she used the topic of children to draw sharp attention to the social instabilities of the post-industrial American economy — and the role of government in redressing what she called a "crisis." Observing that "long-established expectations about doing business have given way under the pressures of the modern economy," she warned bluntly:

"Too many companies, especially large ones, are driven more and more narrowly by the need to ensure that investors get good quarterly returns and to justify executives' high salaries. Too often, this means that they view most employees as costs, not investments, and that they expend less and less concern on job training, employee profit sharing, family-friendly policies ... or even fair pay raises that share with workers — not to mention their families and communities — gains from productivity and profits. ... Despite record profits for many companies, the gap in income between top executives and the average worker has widened dramatically. ... This growing inequality of incomes has serious implications for our children."

Again she praised Germany, a social democratic state where "there is a general consensus that government and business should play a role in evening out inequities in the free market system" — and where higher base wages, universal health care and superb job training guarantee "a distribution of income that is not so skewed as ours is."

Writing those words 20 years ago, when President Bill Clinton was running for re-election against the odds, It Takes a Village softened and hedged her message for American readers — and yet, she was prescient in addressing the harms of an increasingly unfair economy. What she said then undergirds what she is still saying today, more and more forcefully, in this campaign. It is nothing new for her.

Joe Conason is editor in chief of NationalMemo.com. Click here to contact him, follow him on Twitter: @JoeConason, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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