The Kitchen Table Rules the World

"Kitchen table issues" sound quaint, but they are anything but. Here's my cloudy crystal ball: during the 2016 election cycle, the real locus of electoral power will reveal itself: the issues that we talk about together, as families or couples or on late at night phone calls, often in our kitchens.

Candidates will finally focus in on topics hugely important to men and women, but that usually get lumped together as soft "women's issues" : paid family leave, early childhood education, college debt, paycheck fairness and income equality will drive the day.

John Oliver put it on the pop culture agenda. Hillary Clinton is standing on it. And the U.S. Navy led the way with a whopping (for the U.S.) 18 weeks of paid leave.

To me, a candidate's stance on paid leave is a bellwether of their real commitment to inequality, in its largest and broadest definition. It's already a hot talking point, and well, we can't get much worse. Nothing much has changed at the federal level since the U.S. passed a law requiring employers to offer 12 weeks of unpaid leave for caretakers in 1993. "I don't feel like we've made any progress [on family leave] since then," Anne Weisberg, a senior vice president at the nonprofit research group the Families and Work Institute, told The Huffington Post.

It's the perfect campaign issue: an integral women's issue that is equally appealing to men.

According to a poll conducted by the National Partnership for Women and Families in 2012, 86% of Americans said they would support legislation ensuring paid sick days and family and medical leave insurance--including 96 percent of Democrats and 73 percent of Republicans. Paid leave is a rare, truly bipartisan issue that impacts men and women.

John Oliver made paid leave the center of his deep dive segment this past Mother's Day. Oliver provided comprehensive background on the issue, including perhaps why the U.S., as a country, has been so averse to federally legislating guaranteed paid family leave for all Americans. According to Oliver, businesses and their fervent free hand supporters in Congress have lobbied hard against regulations, including paid leave.

Paid family leave tackles inequality head on. It is critical to those already living at or near the poverty line--a segment of the population few candidates publicly address. But like Social Security, paid leave is an issue that benefits everyone, across income lines, and poll numbers support that view.

As Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig wrote in The New Republic, "With numbers like these, it's a wonder nobody has made paid family leave a campaign issue yet." Yet. Hillary Clinton's website puts both family leave, early childhood education, and the wage gap front and center. On Mother's Day, Clinton's campaign posted a two-minute video: "We know," Clinton said "that when women are strong, families are strong."

On Monday, Clinton took an even stronger step into pro-woman, pro-family economic policies in a New York speech.

Clinton is not the only Democratic candidate to take on the mantle of paid leave. Senator Bernie Sanders has been an outspoken supporter of what he calls "real family values" -- a term he hopes to reclaim from conservatives who have made the phrase synonymous with all manner of anti-woman, homophobic stances. Paid family leave, he says, is a key part of his family values platform, specifically 12 weeks of federally mandated paid family leave.

Though still struggling to achieve better name recognition, former Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley has also made improved support for workers a priority and has a proven track record from his time as governor.

Disappointingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, the many candidates vying for the GOP nomination have not come out in support of paid family leave. Jeb Bush has no clear stance on paid family leave, but has voiced his support for deregulation of the private sector and told the New Hampshire Union Leader "people need to work longer hours" and, "through their productivity, gain more income for their families. That's the only way we're going to get out of this rut that we're in."

Florida Senator Marco Rubio does not support a federal law mandating paid leave, saying such decisions should be left to states to make in concert with business. Though, according to Jennifer Senior, " the conservative presidential hopeful from Florida, gives his staff as much paid maternity and paternity leave (12 and six weeks, respectively) as Bernie Sanders."

But with companies jumping to support more generous family leave, there might be room for GOP candidates. Chipotle said this month that it would begin offering hourly workers paid sick days and vacation days, joining McDonald's, Microsoft and other companies that have recently given paid leave to more workers. IBM, long a leader in workplace flexibility, announced it will ship traveling mothers' breast milk home for them in addition to increased maternity and paternity leave, and Nestle increased paid leave for its employees.