Politics and Pawns, by Hughey Newsome

newsome_smA pawn, as defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary, is “one that can be used to further the purposes of another.” It implies the desires of the used are not being addressed, or are at least secondary to the desires of the user.

Politicians often seek influence by leveraging such pawns to support their interests. One obvious example can be seen by comparing the 2011 and 2013 debates over keeping the payroll tax cut.

During that 2011 debate over extending the payroll tax holiday, which cut the payroll tax rate from 6.2 percent to 4.2 percent, the White House launched the #40dollars Twitter campaign. Claiming at the time that “$40 is real money to working families,” the White House collected tweets about how this estimated average savings per paycheck was necessary and so that critics would know “in no uncertain terms that letting the payroll tax cut expire was not acceptable.” Example tweets under the #40dollars campaign included a daughter who needed the $40 for her elderly parent’s medication and a father who needed it for groceries because the family suffered the loss of a breadwinner.

Contrast this concern with fiscal cliff negotiations late last year. At no point was there a Twitter campaign to discuss how those who volunteered their information during the original #40dollars campaign were faring now that the payroll tax holiday was ending. The White House made no effort to save it. There was no new campaign to preserve that $40 that was once a sacrosanct safety net.

Can it be assumed that there was no longer a need for this $40 to buy medication or groceries? Are these ordinary Americans no longer struggling? Obama no longer seemed to have the same compassion or interest.

Likewise, in 2014, ObamaCare will carry a $63-per-person fee to cover enrollees with pre-existing conditions. The fee will be assessed on employers but undoubtedly passed on to employees. Why is there no #63dollars Twitter campaign to bemoan the effect of this little-known, income-draining provision?

None of this is meant to belittle the predicament of those who are struggling. It is also not to say those who volunteered their personal struggles were naïve. The question is about policies and priorities.

If it was good policy to continue the payroll tax holiday in 2011 and important enough for Obama to ask people to help him demagogue their struggles, why were those same struggling Americans apparently overlooked in 2013 when the holiday expired at the same time Hollywood and the windmill industry got tax breaks?

Opponents of the payroll tax holiday rightly argued — in 2011 and 2013 — that it took away money needed for Social Security, which was already underfunded. Since Social Security is supposedly a self-funded trust, it could be argued the government actually allowed people to have their own money, just earlier (instead of forcing people to let government manage their funds).

A paternalistic government allowing citizens to keep their own money, and soliciting praise while doing so, is the ultimate irony.

It seems that, in Obama’s mind, $40 was more important before 2012 than it was after 2012 — so much so that now $63 isn’t even being considered as a burden. People and their problems were apparently being used as pawns in a political game.

This is the danger of using emotion rather than objectivity in making policy. Politicians are less likely to consider their constituents as informed stakeholders when they can be persuaded by provocative and even exploitative campaigns to support conflicted interests.

Politicians are skilled at leveraging the plight of others to advance their own interests — using them as pawns. Voters must understand the entirety of the policies up for debate and discuss all sides.

Plays for emotional reactions are good in terms of political strategy, but they often do not lead to optimal policy. It is up to the citizenry to ensure politicians avoid this for the better of the nation.

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Hughey Newsome, a business consultant in the D.C. area, is a member of the national advisory council of the black leadership network Project 21. Comments may be sent to [email protected].

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