Opinion: Gretchen Whitmer's critical lesson for Democrats

Opinion by Reshma SaujaniUpdated: Sat, 19 Nov 2022 15:26:22 GMTSource: CNNEditor's Note: Reshma Saujani is the founder of Girls Who Code and the Marshall Plan for Moms. She is the author of "Pay

Opinion by Reshma Saujani

Updated: Sat, 19 Nov 2022 15:26:22 GMT

Source: CNN

Editor's Note: Reshma Saujani is the founder of Girls Who Code and the Marshall Plan for Moms. She is the author of "Pay Up: The Future of Women and Work (And Why It's Different Than You Think)". The views expressed here are hers. Read more opinion on CNN.

A few months ago -- as economic concerns reached a fever pitch and pundits began to forecast a looming "red wave" -- Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer put a stake in the ground.

"We have this tendency to say, Covid-19 was a she-cession... we've got to get women back in the workplace,'" the governor explained. "But you know how you do that? You empower women. You don't take our ability to make the most important economic decision we make in our lifetimes away from us."

The Supreme Court would go on to overturn Roe v. Wade two days later.

In the months that followed, commentators and pollsters breathlessly speculated about whether voters would prioritize abortion or the economy in casting their vote. Indeed, Republicans rejoiced -- and Democrats despaired -- in seeing both the Dow and the abortion decision backlash dip earlier this fall.

But for Whitmer, the choice between abortion and the economy was a false one. On the contrary, women's reproductive health and their state's economic future were inextricably linked -- if you take away the former, you jeopardize the latter.

Clearly, the message hit home for voters: Whitmer won in a landslide against an anti-abortion extremist, racking up double-digit margins in a state that famously swung red back in 2016. Moreover, while about a quarter of voters nationwide ranked abortion as their top issue, that number was 45% in Michigan -- a higher share than those who cited inflation in the state.

Whitmer's victory reveals a fundamental truth, and one that Democrats would be wise to run on in elections to come: The price of parenthood is the ultimate economic issue -- and only one party is doing something about it.

To be clear, candidates red and blue were right to campaign on top-of-mind economic issues like inflation and gas prices. Though, as both economists (and apparently, voters) noted, the Republican Party lacked a real plan to address them. As parents, these costs hit us as hard and often as anyone: Inflation has driven up the price of our kids' haircuts, potato chips and soccer cleats, while soaring gas prices have us wanting to charge fees for every carpool.

But there are additional costs killing parents' budgets every day. The price of child care, for one, is rising faster than inflation. In fact, it's now the norm for pre-school to cost more than an in-state public university degree, contributing to a staggering 40% of parents going into debt well before their children have moved into a dorm.

Exploding health care costs, too, are responsible for two-thirds of all bankruptcies, with American hospital prices 60% more than they are in other countries. And while we're comparing ourselves to the rest of the world, 120 other countries now have paid parental leave programs at the national level -- but guess who still doesn't?

And then, as Whitmer argued, there's the most fundamental financial issue for parents, and especially for Black women -- whether or not to become one in the first place. Months after the Dobbs decision overturning, it's more expensive than ever to raise a child -- over $18,000 per year, per child for a working-class family, according to a Brookings Institution analysis. While higher gas prices might hurt, they pale in comparison to the cost of caring for a child the Supreme Court forced you to have.

Not many Democrats made that case as compellingly as Whitmer; some failed to see abortion (not to mention health care, child care and parental leave) as intertwined with the economy, period. Candidly, I believe those among them who won anyway got lucky: they were up against candidates who couldn't run on these issues, many of them having forced women to have children and then failing to take steps to protect those children at every turn. And in the five states where abortion was on the ballot, voters turned out to support it every time -- often with down-ballot benefits to show for it.

Not to mention, the issues Republicans did campaign on -- banning books, eliminating some sex education and taking away transgender people's access to health care -- are deeply unpopular to us. Indeed, for all the time the GOP spent manufacturing culture wars, none of these so-called "parental rights" issues cracked the top 10 for voters going into the midterms, according to Gallup.

But Democrats can't count on Republicans to make the same mistake twice. Over the next two years, they must convey to voters that reproductive freedom is economic freedom -- and they can start by legislating that way.

Many Democrats, especially at a local level, were given a second chance this election: to put paid leave back on the table, to lower the cost of child care and pay child care workers their due, to finally increase access to quality education and health care, and to codify women's rights to control their own bodies. These policies would ease parents' financial stresses far more than Republican corporate tax breaks ever could -- and history shows that if candidates articulate the value of these policies, their numbers may in fact improve.

Whitmer is certainly proof of this -- but so is Rep. Elissa Slotkin of Michigan, who won a toss-up race, in part by linking abortion restrictions and labor shortages; Rep. Katie Porter of California, whose consistent messaging that reproductive freedom is necessary for economic security, clearly hit home in her competitive district; and US Representative-elect Marie Gluesenkamp Perez of Washington, who clinched the biggest upset of the season by not only discussing abortion, but also the lack of affordable, quality child care for working parents like herself.

These candidates offer a blueprint for a better nation -- and, looking ahead to 2024, Democrats would be wise to take them and their strategy seriously. They've shown us a future where leaders talk about these policies as the pocketbook issues they are and prove they can pass them on behalf of the people.

Most importantly, it's a world in which parents across the political spectrum can be sure that the party they elected is, finally, giving us a chance, too.