Clinton Sets A Parent Trap For The Gop?

Consumed by his none-too-splendid Balkan war, Bill Clinton has had little time lately for domestic initiatives. But he caught Republicans, business lobbyists, and women's advocates off guard with his April Surprise: a pledge to back new legislation that makes working parents a "protected class." The measure would make it easier to sue employers for job discrimination--and it brought predictable howls from business groups concerned about costly lawsuits. But since the post-impeachment Clinton lacks the political clout to enact such a bill, even feminist leaders who welcomed the idea were wondering: Why now?

Politics, rather than parenting concerns, may provide an answer. In past Presidential elections, Democrats opened a huge gender gap over Republicans, luring hard-pressed single mothers and suburban soccer moms by stressing education, family leave, and child care. But with the scowling mugs of Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole a fading memory, Republicans are retooling their image to appear more family-friendly. In Clinton-Gore land, there are legitimate worries that a GOP ticket of, say, moderate Texas Governor George W. Bush and ex-Labor Secretary Elizabeth H. Dole could make a strong bid for women's votes in 2000.

NO PROBLEM? For the record, Administration aides insist that Clinton and Vice-President Al Gore have long been interested in developing a "work & family" agenda. White House Domestic Policy Adviser Bruce Reed says that with 75% of American families made up of two working parents, anecdotal evidence demonstrates that moms are being held back because of employers' concerns about divided loyalties and limited energy. "This is one of the great challenges of the New Economy," says Reed, architect of the Clinton initiative.

Problem is, there's little hard evidence that large numbers of employers are denying jobs or promotions to employees with children. It's true that from 1985 to 1997, the number of working women with children at home jumped 32%, from 18 million to 24 million. But that demographic shift hasn't been ignored by the states. Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Michigan, and five others have banned parental job bias. The White House proposal goes further, letting parents file suit in federal court if, for example, they are denied a job or a promotion because of family obligations.

LEGAL KINDLING. The measure would not sanction suits in which an employee claims bias because the boss requires weekend work. But with employment claims the fastest-growing category of civil lawsuits, employer groups hate the proposal. "Plaintiffs will look for reasons to file lawsuits," predicts Randel K. Johnson, a U.S. Chamber of Commerce employee-benefit expert. Washington attorney Frank C. Morris points out that many employers are scrambling in today's tight labor market to make their workplaces more attractive to harried parents. "This is a solution without a problem," says Morris.

Even women's groups are scratching their heads. National Organization for Women President Patricia Ireland says that while she supports Clinton's idea, "it wasn't anywhere on our radar screen." Shrugs one Democratic pollster: "I haven't heard this come up as a burning issue."

Business execs plan a vigorous lobbying drive to stop the bill. And they'll get plenty of backing from GOP lawmakers. But that may be just what election-minded Dems are counting on. Sure, Republicans have the votes to stomp on the latest White House initiative. But doing so may give Clinton and Gore the chance to paint their foes as hostile to the needs of working families. That's gender-gap insurance, Clinton-style.