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Opinion: Playing chess with paid leave olm26250/iStock/Thinkstock

Opinion: Playing chess with paid leave

Republicans and Democrats must decide whether to play the short- or long-game with a paid-leave proposal

Joe Kefauver is managing partner of Align Public Strategies, a full-service public affairs and creative firm that helps corporate brands, governments and nonprofits navigate the outside world and inform their internal decision-making. This article does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editors or management of Nation’s Restaurant News or Restaurant Hospitality.

We all know that things change in politics. Sometimes that change is incredibly slow, but sometimes it’s immediate. There are plenty of examples of this on policy matters, but our own national political parties provide a perfect example of how important issues can volley between parties right before our eyes.

It’s easy for political observers who are caught up in the daily headlines to forget that just because the Democrats or Republicans are for or against an issue today doesn’t mean it has always been that way or always will be. Sometimes it takes a century for that change to happen. Sometimes it’s just a generation or two. Or, as we are currently witnessing, it’s an election cycle.

Here’s one example: For most of this country’s history, Democrats were advocates of a smaller national government and champions of state’s rights. It wasn’t until FDR and his New Deal, which called for unprecedented federal powers in response to the Great Depression, that Democrats became champions of a strong federal government. They haven’t looked back since.

The immigration issue is an ongoing case study for this. In the 1970s and ’80s, it was Democrats who were leery of loose immigration laws, as they perceived them a threat to union jobs. Conversely, Republicans, as champions of business, were very pro-immigration. The comprehensive immigration reform legislation of 1986 is still viewed as one of Reagan’s greatest domestic achievements. Fast forward just 30 years and the situation is reversed. Democrats, who sense political opportunity in the rising Hispanic population, are now pro-immigration, and the Republican party, which is no longer run by the business community but instead by social activists, is tough on immigration now. That shift took a relatively quick 25 years.

Fast forward to our current environment and the reversals seem to be happening overnight. Just a few years ago, Democrats were shameless supporters of Silicon Valley and are now blaming them for their election losses in 2016. Similarly, just two to three years ago Republicans were fiscal conservatives and deficit hawks. Not anymore. Now they are gleefully running up deficits that would make Ted Kennedy blush.

The point is that change is happening fast and one issue important to operators may be a critical inflection point for another issue realignment — paid leave. It appears an issue very familiar to the industry may be taking us into a very unfamiliar political space.

Earlier this month, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida began floating a concept of potentially paying for paid and sick leave benefits by letting workers draw from their Social Security accounts before their eligibility dates and delaying retirement by the amount of time they used. This is interesting for a lot of reasons. First, you have a Republican, supported initially by first daughter Ivanka Trump, and now by a few other staunch conservative senators, leading a conversation about a national paid leave benefit. That is unusual in itself. Republicans like Rubio have often advocated for family-friendly policies, but they have generally been in the form of a tax credit or some revision to the tax code, not a new program. Secondly, this obviously puts Democrats in a tough spot. This is not the employer-funded approach they prefer and not a formal national program mandating days of leave for which they have been advocating. As a result, many Democrats will reflexively oppose it for that reason alone, while others will oppose it because their union masters will demand it. But should they?

Democrats may be making the mistake of playing checkers and not chess. While not a perfect solution for them in the near term, they may be smart to join hands with Rubio and make some “progress” on the issue now, but more importantly solidify one of their highest priorities — expanding Social Security benefits. And as we know from nearly 75 years of Social Security politics, once a benefit gets in, it never comes out. If I were Nancy Pelosi or Chuck Schumer, I would be very tempted to jump on this bandwagon and let their Republican colleagues walk the plank for them and be the champions of expanding Social Security.

And there could be additional opportunities outside of Congress. As states like Washington experiment with the concept of portable benefits, the easiest pathway for a federal version of portable benefits would be expanding, or embedding the program, within Social Security. Rubio’s proposal could serve as a stepping stone to an uber-social-safety-net program.

Conversely for Republicans, they may also be playing short-term checkers at the expense of long-term chess. In their legitimate panic to find some way to appeal to moderate suburban women in the wake of this year’s national conversation about sexual harassment and their fairly tepid response to it, Republicans are looking at paid leave as a possible bridge to those voters. If Rubio is successful in his approach, they would cross that bridge, but the toll might be steep — expanding Social Security, which at one time was anathema to conservative dogma. But as we have seen in the past few months, decades of dogma can easily be kicked to the curb for immediate political expediency.

However this plays out over the coming year or two, restaurant operators should follow this issue closely. At the very least, our business models could very quickly become game pieces in a potential issue realignment among our political parties. And we would be smart to have a prominent seat at the game table.  

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