Conservatives now know what they are up against. Anyone hoping that scandals and eye-popping inconsistency about both policy and personal matters would take Hillary Clinton out of the game needs to think again. In the first Democratic debate, Hillary Clinton showed her prodigious ability to stay on message, turn questions to her advantage and brazen through any uncomfortable questions about her truthfulness and record.

Just as important, conservatives also got a refresher on what issues will take center stage over the next year, and how Democrats plan to appeal to voters. Republicans will need to do much more than talk about economic growth and taxes; they need to be able to explain how their policies would improve the lives of middle-class voters, create real opportunity for work and advancement, and ease women's burdens in particular.

Conservatives will have to be prepared to tackle issues like family leave policy and equal pay, which Secretary Clinton raised in her opening remarks: "I want to do more to help us balance family and work. I believe in equal pay for equal work for women, but I also believe it's about time we had paid family leave for American families and join the rest of the world."

Clinton and the other Democrats know these workplace issues have tremendous political appeal. Vague promises of benefits can be cast as "commonsense" solutions and play on Americans' laudable instincts to help new mothers and working parents struggling to care for sick family members.

It's no wonder Republicans are reluctant to engage in this debate. Democrats are in the position of Santa Claus, offering new benefits to people everyone wants to help while ignoring how those benefits materialize and at what cost. Who wants to be on the other side of that?

Yet Republicans need to get engaged in these debates, show that they understand the challenges people face, explain how Democrats' solutions create new problems and rob vulnerable Americans of opportunities, and offer a positive vision of an alternative system that really will help people in need.

The good news is the facts are on conservatives' side, and they can draw on Americans' recent experience with government's broken promises. After all, Obamacare was sold as necessary to help vulnerable Americans, while holding the rest of the country harmless or improving their situation by lowering costs and enhancing benefits.

But as Americans know too well, Obamacare has failed on those measures. We've seen employers cut back because of the higher employment costs created by new mandates. Millions of Americans have lost their preferred insurance, while premiums and out-of-pocket costs climb even faster. While some have gained insurance coverage, sadly for many insurance is in name only: narrow doctor networks make it a battle to obtain quality health care services.

A sweeping one-size-fits-all paid leave system would create similar problems, by upending the employment contracts of all 146 million working Americans. Businesses that don't currently provide paid leave would face higher employment costs and new workplace disruptions.

That's another reason to consolidate the workforce, and — no surprise — women and those with lower incomes would be the most vulnerable.

Clinton dismisses worries about costs: "I know we can afford it, because we're going to make the wealthy pay for it." Yet regardless of any funding scheme, it's not the wealthy who will be hurt by the policy's unintended consequences. If that's explained, Americans will understand it isn't compassionate to create new benefits that mean lost jobs and fewer opportunities for those who need it most.

Recognizing the problems with government paid-leave programs doesn't mean nothing can be done to help those who face real hardship. Conservatives should seek innovative solutions to target financial assistance to help them, without disrupting the job market. And, of course, the best way to ensure people have the benefits they need is for jobs to be plentiful, and that requires an entirely different approach to job creation than we've seen.

Research shows that when conservatives engage on this issue, Americans are far less likely to support the left's call for another big government expansion. Republicans have a good case to make to the public on these important issues; now they just have to get into the game.

Carrie Lukas is the managing director of the Independent Women's Forum. She wrote this for