Why Hillary Clinton should take a pay cut

Story highlights

  • Sally Kohn: April 14 is Equal Pay Day, and Hillary Clinton should make an announcement about wage gap
  • Clinton should say that if elected, she will take a 23% pay cut to stand in solidarity with working women

Sally Kohn is an activist, columnist and television commentator. Follow her on Twitter: @sallykohn. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)Tuesday, April 14, is Equal Pay Day.

Here's the announcement presidential candidate Hillary Clinton should make:
"Today in America, women earn on average 77 cents for every dollar men earn. And the gap is even greater for women of color. That's unconscionable. As president, my top priority will be fixing inequality and ensuring that 100% of the population is paid 100% of what they're worth. And so, I'm announcing that if elected president, I will take a 23% pay cut, equivalent to the current gender wage gap, to stand in solidarity with working women in America. And I won't take a raise until every woman in America gets a raise, too."
    April 14 wasn't just chosen at random as Equal Pay Day. It's based on a calculation: For women to make the same amount of money that men made in 2014, they'd have to work until April 14, 2015.
    A woman on average loses $431,000 in pay over the course of a 40-year career. Merely closing the gender wage gap would pull half of working single moms out of poverty. And at a time where Republicans are still, bizarrely, trumpeting more tax breaks for business and the rich to stimulate the economy, closing the pay gap would put money in the pockets of working people who would actually spend and stimulate real growth.
    So here's the perfect opportunity for Hillary Clinton to put her money where her mouth is, literally. In her campaign launch and personal rebrand, Clinton is clearly trying to portray herself as a woman of the people, a populist fighter for the middle class. "Everyday Americans need a champion," Clinton said in her campaign launch video, "and I want to be that champion."
    Clinton has deftly put her finger in the wind and sensed the winds of populism blowing through America. Indeed, the fact that many Democratic voters still clamor for a less pro-war, less pro-Wall Street, more Elizabeth Warren-like alternative to Clinton is an ever-present thorn in the otherwise blooming garden of Clinton's inevitability.
    With her video, Clinton has signaled a clear desire to ground herself and her candidacy in the soil of populism. But can a wealthy white woman who once sat on the board of Walmart, has already lived in the White House, collects six-figure speaking fees and doesn't seem to own a pair of jeans really inhabit the portrait of a populist fighter?
    This is where a good ol'-fashioned political stunt would come in handy. And make no mistake about it, I'm recommending a political stunt.
    Let's call a spade a spade. Hillary Clinton is a very rich person. While she's certainly not the first rich person to run for president, her wealth -- and the related perception of being out of touch with ordinary Americans -- is an obstacle in her candidacy.
    The difference between the current standard presidential salary of $400,000 a year and the 77 cents-on-the-dollar version of that salary, or $308,000, is probably a drop in the bucket in Clinton's bank account at this point. And yet the symbolic power is profound.
    Because what Clinton would be reminding us is that across America, the aggregate salaries of all working women is 23% less than the aggregate salaries of all men.
    Thanks to the hacked Sony emails, we saw that even top female stars and executives in Hollywood are paid less than their male counterparts. What more powerful message could the potential first female president send than literally signifying that nationwide inequity in her own salary? Clinton wouldn't just be saying she stands with the working women of America, she'd be showing it.
    Is it offensive to suggest that the first female commander in chief should be paid 23% less than her male predecessors for doing exactly the same work? Yes. And that's the point -- to use her status to highlight the offensive gender wage gap and what Clinton, as president, would do to fix it.
    Yes, such stunts are trite and theatrical. They're also effective, especially in our increasingly short-attention-span, it-only-happened-if-you-can-tweet it, symbolism-over-substance culture. Politics used to be about clunky people (mostly men) debating complex policies. Now it's about polished memes and even more polished candidates. Policy (I hope) still matters, but we're as likely to debate a candidate's "image" as her or his "substance."
    The truth is that stunts and theatrics are now part and parcel of politics, as they are in our culture in general. That doesn't mean they can't also serve a noble purpose, in highlighting important problems and inspiring solutions.
    Clinton did an arguably brilliant thing in her campaign launch, framing her video and presidential bid as not about her but the American people. In fact, Clinton didn't even appear in the video until the very end -- it was all about middle-class Americans, working hard, trying to get by and get ahead. And then we see Hillary, who wants to help.
    Hillary Clinton can't change who she is, the baggage attached to her by both the right and the left, rightly or wrongly. But she can change what she does going forward, how she shows up and signifies herself as a voice not for the status quo and the establishment -- but for ordinary Americans who need change.
    If Clinton wins, her presidency will indeed be symbolic and historic. And it will be significant if she does something to change the lives of the 158 million women in America.