On a bright California day last April, Arnold Schwarzenegger was out of character. Instead of shooting up bad guys on a movie set, he was driving to the Los Angeles county clerk’s office in a truck loaded with petitions bearing 750,000 signatures in support of a ballot initiative to fund California after-school programs, known as the After School Education and Safety Act. The proposal, spearheaded by Schwarzenegger, would offer a matching grant to every public elementary, middle, and junior high school for after-hours programs that would keep kids safely occupied for those treacherous afternoons when their parents are still at work.

It’s the kind of feel-good social program that you might expect to find an old-fashioned Democrat peddling.Except that in this case, it’s Schwarzenegger–who, though married into the Kennedy clan, is an active Republican seriously considering a run for governor of California. The erstwhile Terminatornowspends his days sounding more like Marian Wright Edelman.”Half of all California kids are now in single working-parent homes or homes with two working parents,” he told me. “One million kids under the age of 15 are home alone after school. These are kids that do not have anyone to do homework with them, take them to the sports field, or hug them.”

On the campaign trail, he’s adopted a similar mantra. “Studies show that after-school programs reduce crime, reduce alcohol and drug use, reduce grade repetition, and increase scores on standardized tests,” he likes to say. When asked about whether his initiative would put the government in the position of replacing mom, he responds, “Do we want philosophy or action? I want action.”

How did Schwarzenegger turn into an activist for after-school programs? George Gorton, campaign manager for the ballot initiative and one-time chief political adviser to former Gov. Pete Wilson, says Schwarzenegger came to the issue through serving as chairman of President George H.W. Bush’s Council on Physical Fitness and founding the Inner City Games after-school program. But he is clearly contemplating a future run for office and needed to define himself with a signature issue that would strike a chord with the voters. So he tapped into the vast and unmet need for the government to do something to ease the stress of working parents whose schedules do not easily accommodate a school day designed for an agricultural society. Not only would the after-school plan give parents the security of having somewhere safe and stimulating to leave their kids after school, the public initiative would also ease the financial strain on parents who otherwise would have to pay for private child care–care that may not be as good or reliable as what the public schools could provide.

Sixty percent of Californians support Schwarzenegger’s proposal, which is backed by 100 mayors and a broad array of groups from the right and the left, including the California Teachers Association, the California State Sheriffs’ Association, and the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association. The real mystery, then, isn’t why Arnold is on the case. It’s why more politicians aren’t. Issues like after-school care, paid parental leave, and more flexible workplaces aren’t a factor in this year’s midterm congressional elections. Instead, the fight for Congress hinges on issues like prescription drugs and Social Security. Most candidates this year from both parties are largely ignoring a critical and increasingly potent issue.

California isn’t the only state in which struggling parents are juggling the dual jobs of caring for children and earning a living. In 70 percent of American families with children under 18, all parents work. As a result, parents have 22 fewer hours per week to spend with their children than they did in 1969. Yet the workplace, the school day, and the social safety net have been slow to accommodate this radical shift. Instead, the burden has been on parents to adapt, which they’ve done by individually cobbling together private, makeshift–and often expensive–child-care arrangements that leave much to be desired. Every workday, millions of children are left in unlicensed day care. Twenty percent of children ages six to 12 with a working mother have no adult supervision at all in the hours after school. Women have borne the brunt of these changes, forced to sacrifice financial security–taking dead-end, part-time jobs with no benefits, for instance–to be home when their kids get out of school.

You’d think that this would be a potent political issue. After all, soccer moms–those electoral darlings whom both political parties have recently courted–are particularly attuned to such problems. Yet America’s elected officials are all but ignoring the pressures that face American families on a daily basis. Democratic political consultant Tom Freedman says this is a sleeper issue that “both parties ignore at their peril.”

It’s not hard to see why. In 1992, Bill Clinton won the White House in part by whacking George H.W. Bush for his failure to support the Family and Medical Leave Act, helping Clinton become the first Democratic contender in at least a decade to win the votes of a majority of married women. On the advice of his pollster, Mark Penn, Clinton also targeted soccer moms in his successful 1996 campaign against Bob Dole. Ever since, operatives in both parties have urged a renewed focus on this group as a key to winning elections. That’s because married women make up about one-third of the electorate and–unlike unmarried women, who are solidly Democratic–are within reach of either party, a classic “swing” voting group. Recently, Penn has been urging Democrats to expand their field of vision to include soccer moms’ husbands–“office-park dads,” the moderate-income suburban fathers who make up 15 percent of the electorate. All in all, parents with kids at home make up one-third of voters–a slightly larger group than the seniors whom both parties are targeting so heavily this fall. Working parents in families in which no parent is at home full time constitute well over one-third of the total population.

You can gauge their worry by the glut of magazines and bestselling books that address the problems of working families. Articles with titles like “The Choice: Kids vs. Career: One Woman’s Story,” “Goodbye, Boss Lady, Hello, Soccer Mom,” and “Superdad; Moms Aren’t Alone in Struggles to Balance Careers and Families” appear regularly in the national media. And a new crop of books has inspired even more public discussion. Ann Crittenden’s widely read book of last year, The Price of Motherhood, proclaimed that an upper-income mother who leaves her career to care for her child can sacrifice $1 million over a lifetime. Sylvia Ann Hewlett grabbed headlines by purporting to show that a woman’s career success can come at the expense of having children. Nancy Folbre won a MacArthur “genius” grant for illuminating the ways in which an economic system that makes it difficult for parents to support children may deprive itself of future generations of labor.

These authors and others question why the United States remains one of only two industrialized nations that don’t require paid maternity leave. (Before the Taliban took control, even the government of Afghanistan did so.) They emphasize that many mothers would like to work part-time or cycle in and out of work while raising kids, so as to maintain a foothold on the economic ladder without neglecting their children’s well-being, but that such opportunities are few and far between. They bemoan the scarcity of affordable, quality child care, school hours tied to an agrarian economy, and the way mothers who cut back their hours or drop out of the workforce forfeit credit toward Social Security.

These books touched a nerve–especially with 30- and 40-something upper-income women left wondering how they went so quickly from “career gal” to unemployed room parent. But these problems aren’t limited to upper-income women. The stresses on lower-income mothers and fathers are even more severe. Jody Heymann, chair of the Harvard University Work, Family and Democracy Initiative, found in a nationwide study that 30 percent of working parents must take time off every week to care for a family member and many risk losing their job by doing so. “American families are under enormous stress,” says Heymann. “More than they need to be, and more than their counterparts in other countries.”

This is why some political pollsters and strategists have been telling politicians that Americans support measures that would ease the pressure of managing work and family. Penn says, “Paid leave gets [poll] numbers like 80 [percent] because men like it, too. It’s money in the bank.” An OfficeTeam survey taken in May, which asked workers to rank their number-one career concern, found the ability to balance business and personal demands topped the list, with nearly one-third of respondents ranking this higher even than job security and salary.

Yet not since Clinton has a politician seeking national office suggested that government take a wider role in supporting working parents. Ask the two parties what their candidates are doing to help relieve the American family’s time crunch, and here’s what you get:

Tovah Ravitz, press secretary for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, insists that Democrats are focusing on work/family issues, saying, “I think that a lot of our campaigns are talking about work/family issues. That definition as to what things are in the category of work/family vary depending on the person. When people talk about everything from Social Security to prescription drugs, it’s all about personal security . . . they are all part of people’s security about their work, family, home . . . It is one of the biggest issues that Democrats will be talking about during these elections.”

Dan Allen, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, says it’s simply not true that the GOP is doing nothing to help ease work/family time strains. “From the Republican standpoint, we are very focused on middle-class family issues. The fact is, a lot of these issues intertwine. For instance, prescription drugs are very important to middle-class families–many people have parents who are about to retire. The burden of prescription drugs has become a crisis for a lot of families.”

Prescription drugs and Social Security are no doubt important issues for the nation’s seniors. But if you relied solely on the words of candidates running for office in this year’s midterm congressional elections, you’d never guess that work/family issues were top priorities for a great many other Americans.

Part of the explanation lies in the bruising 10-year battle to pass the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) that began in the 1980s. On one side were a group of savvy liberals including Howard Berman (D-Calif.) and Pat Schroeder (D-Colo.) in the House and Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) in the Senate, who worked with the Women’s Legal Defense Fund (now the National Partnership on Women and Families) and other advocates to build a broad legislative coalition. After seven years of negotiations, that coalition included the Junior League, the Catholic Conference, unions, civil rights groups, and feminists alike. By the time debate began in Congress, they had also garnered the support of influential conservatives like Henry Hyde (R-Ill.)–who said on the House floor, “I don’t think my support for family leave is aberrational, but rather it’s consistent with traditional values”–as well as Chris Bond (R-Mo.) and Dan Coats (R-Ind.).

But business lobbies staunchly opposed the bill, a modest piece of legislation which mandated that employers give workers three months of unpaid leave after the birth or adoption of a child or to care for a sick family member. As Ed Frank of the National Federation of Independent Businesses says, “Our guys don’t want the federal government telling us what to do.” They were joined by a host of anti-regulation libertarians and some social conservatives who, unlike Hyde and Coats, feared the measure would encourage more mothers to join the workforce.

The Democratic Congress passed FMLA twice, and twice President George H.W. Bush vetoed it (adding to voters’ general feeling that Bush didn’t “get it” on domestic issues). But on the campaign trail, Clinton and Gore found that calling for FMLA was their best applause line. And when Clinton took office in 1993, he made it the first bill he signed.

Yet that was essentially the beginning and the end of serious political debate about real support for working families. Clinton did push through several low visibility but important measures that didn’t require major battles in Congress, including funding for after-school programs and allowing the states to use unemployment insurance to provide paid parental leave. However, the failure of healthcare reform later in Clinton’s term made Democrats wary of pursuing any large-scale government reforms.

Meanwhile, small-business activists extended their presence in the Democratic Party. In 2000, for instance, small-business owners on the Democratic platform committee fought against a proposal to provide paid family leave. Even now, the business lobby is still waging legislative and legal assaults on the immensely popular FMLA, which doesn’t even cover businesses with fewer than 50 people. As a result, Judith Lichtman, president of the National Partnership for Women and Families, says advocates for social change have but a fraction of the resources available to their opponents.

Another problem may be that work/family issues aren’t as attractive as narrower issues with more vocal constituencies. Grover Norquist, president of Citizens for Tax Reform and a leading Republican strategist, says politicians would rather focus on retirement programs because that’s where they believe the votes are. Twenty-four percent of voters are seniors, he says, and with people living longer and having fewer children, fewer of the voting age citizenry are parents of young children. To a politician, playing to retirees looks like a much better bet.

Norquist ignores the fact that parents with kids at home make up one-third of voters. But he’s right about parents being a tougher nut to crack. Unlike seniors, working parents don’t necessarily look to the government for help. According to Anna Greenberg, a political scientist and vice president of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, Inc., families “have trouble translating this issue into policies that might help. The structural causes are so broad, given the constraints of the policymaking apparatus.”

Divides within each party also make it hard for politicians to reach another bipartisan consensus. Within the GOP, some social conservatives oppose anything that helps working mothers. (“Thanks, Mom: The Case Against Working Mothers,” was the title of a National Review cover story last year that reflected this sentiment.) However, others would like to provide families more support in the belief that mothers would then stay home. These conservatives could be persuaded to support intermediate government actions–as Henry Hyde did with the FMLA–but they face opposition from the party’s libertarians, who oppose practically all expansions of government’s role.

On the other side of the aisle, Democrats are torn between those who recognize that a successful, broad social-policy agenda must address the needs of middle-class families, and those who feel that the federal government’s limited budgetary resources and their limited political capital should focus first on the needs of the poor. The limited-scope side appears to be winning. Anne Kim, who works on the Work, Family & Communities Project at the Progressive Policy Institute, says that this year, the biggest work/family issues for Democrats fall under the heading of welfare reform, where Democrats are struggling to increase funds for low-income child-care subsidies so that one out of six eligible kids will receive subsidized care instead of one out of seven–hardly a bold agenda even for the poor.

Democrats, too, have been resistant to the kinds of compromises that might allow them to reach out to stay-at-home parents as well as those who work. For instance, when Hillary Clinton wanted to include a tax credit for stay-at-home mothers in a White House child-care package, others in the administration blocked the idea, helping to doom the package on the Hill.

The end result is a kind of policy sclerosis. Linda Chavez, the conservative activist and President George W. Bush’s first nominee for Labor secretary, a working mother, says, “A Democrat would have a hard time suggesting women should delay going into workforce just as a Republican would have difficulty saying that women should be able to work.”

While Washington partisans on the right and the left may still be fighting a culture war over the working mother, the rest of the country has moved on in the decade since enactment of the FMLA. More mothers are in the workplace than ever before; having a job is less a choice than a necessity–one that smart politicians would do well to recognize.

To make work/family issues a winner, politicians need only take a second look at Bill Clinton’s success on this score. Clinton was able to win the presidency because he offered middle-class Americans the vision of a government that would respond to their everyday needs–through the FMLA, health care, job retraining, and the like. He was responding to critics who argued that the Democratic Party needed to offer programs that helped the middle class as well as the poor, that incorporated the private sector, and that were supportive of the values held by most families. He incorporated these critiques–and many of the critics–into his efforts, crafting a program and a message that allowed middle-class families to feel he was on their side.

Clinton’s success at latching onto these issues suggests that a savvy party could tailor a popular national campaign around the right blend of work/family policies–policies that would benefit the poor and middle class alike. Such a platform might include the following:

Provide universal after-school care and universal pre-school. The school day should match the workday to ease parents’ child-care burden and to help prepare the future workforce through high-quality educational programs.

End the “parent penalties” in the tax code. Harvard’s David Ellwood and Jeffrey Liebman have proposed a single, integrated child tax credit to replace the existing combination of the Earned Income Tax Credit, child tax credit, and dependent exemption in order to target more support to middle-income families.

Provide secondary earners an exemption on the payroll tax. And expand the child-care credit so that it covers a greater portion of the cost of child care. Make it refundable and make stay-at-home parents eligible.

Require paid leave. Time off isn’t enough. Parents should be able to actually afford to take leave for a new child or to care for a sick family member.

Reward stay-at-home parents. Congress should make it easier for stay-at-home parents to get tax-subsidized health insurance and pensions and make them eligible for Social Security credits, disability insurance, workers’ compensation, and the child-care tax credit to compensate for the income they lose by caring for a child.

These issues are nonpartisan, and either party could conceivably launch such programs. But the issue is a natural one for the Democrats because it plays to all the party’s strengths. Holly Fechner, chief labor counsel on the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, says such an agenda would be possible with “a campaign that brings the big picture into focus.” Ann Lewis, national chair of the Democratic National Committee’s Women Vote Center, concurs that Democrats need to help American families recognize that government can play a productive role in easing some of the stress in their daily lives.

Unfortunately, the Democrats seem stuck in a defensive crouch. They appear to have learned only the negative lessons from the fight over FMLA and, more significantly, the healthcare debacle that followed, which left them overcautious about any but the safest of social policy battles. As a result, they may find these issues co-opted by George W. Bush. Little noted in discussions of the Bush tax cut were the provisions that reduce taxes for lower, and middle-income families with children–the refundable child tax credit, the expanded child and dependent care tax credit, and marriage penalty relief. These provisions will be partially phased in before the 2004 election, unlike most of the far larger cuts for wealthy Americans.

According to Len Burman and Jeffrey Rohaly of the Urban Institute, a family of four at the median income will owe approximately $1,300 less in taxes in constant dollars once the Bush tax cut is fully phased in than it did in 2000. The tax break does nothing to change the structure of work–and these families will be the ones stuck with the bill or the lack of Social Security benefits–but it’s better than nothing. And so far, it’s better than anything the Democrats have come up with.

And Republicans have certainly nailed down the rhetoric. Ann Wagner, co-chair of the RNC, tells her audiences that she knows firsthand how it feels to try to balance work and family. It’s like “juggling an egg, a soccer ball, and a chain saw. And then the cell phone rings.” When asked what President Bush is doing for working parents, Wagner proudly cites Bush’s tax cut that, she says, gave middle-income families “$1,500 for a vacation or to hire a tutor.” No surprise, then, that working parents now support the GOP by six points.

But the stakes are about to rise for both sides. In California, the legislature recently passed a bill to require paid parental leave–the first in the nation. At press time, Democratic governor Gray Davis hadn’t yet decided whether he would sign the bill, but given Schwarzenegger’s success with his after-school measure, Davis risks ceding work/family issues to the Republicans if he doesn’t. Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.)–the Terminator’s uncle–thinks the issue is heading for the national stage. According to Fechner, he believes work/family issues are “the next big Democratic issue,” and is developing a legislative agenda. It remains to be seen whether the issue will be joined at the political level. A key indicator, though, may come from the nation’s leading futurist, Al Gore, who, with wife Tipper, is writing two books on the American family, due out in November–just around the time he is likely to announce his candidacy for 2004.

Karen Kornbluh

Karen Kornbluh is a Markle Fellow at the New America Foundation. She was Director of the Office of Legislative and Intergovernmental Affairs at the FCC and Deputy Chief of Staff at the Treasury Department in the Clinton Administration.