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June/July/August 2014 Working the GOP’s Weak Spot

How Barack Obama is following Bill Clinton's minimum wage game plan to try to hold onto the Senate.

By Paul Glastris


He lost the argument: In 1996, Bill Clinton’s deft use of the minimum wage issue so flummoxed Bob Dole that the thirty-five-year Hill veteran quit the Senate in order to run full-time for president. Credit: Getty Images

On April 30, Senate Republicans filibustered a bill sponsored by the Democrats and heavily promoted by President Obama that would have raised the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 an hour. It was an impressive show of unity by GOP senators, only one of whom, Bob Corker of Tennessee, supported the Democrats’ failed effort to send the bill to the floor for a vote.

But that very day, former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty made news when he said on MSNBC that “Republicans should support reasonable increases to the minimum wage.” Five days later, another 2012 GOP presidential candidate broke ranks. “Let’s not make this argument that we’re for the blue-collar guy but we’re against any minimum wage increase ever,” said Rick Santorum. “It just makes no sense.” A month after that, Mitt Romney himself joined in the apostasy: “I, for instance, as you know, part company with many of the conservatives in my party on the issue of the minimum wage. I think we ought to raise it.”

Though Pawlenty, Santorum, and Romney aren’t running for office (at least not in 2014), their prominence in the party—and the journalistic rule that says three’s a trend—was enough to prompt this front-page Washington Post headline: “Split Appears in GOP as More Call for Raising Federal Minimum Wage.”

And it isn’t just Republican ex-presidential candidates who are having second thoughts on the minimum wage. In several hotly contested Senate races, GOP challengers have commenced various sorts of waffling on the issue. In Arkansas, Representative Tom Cotton, aiming to unseat Senator Mark Pryor, let it be known that he will “carefully study” a state minimum wage increase proposal after having previously opposed the very idea of a minimum wage. In North Carolina, Thom Tillis, during the GOP primary to take on Senator Kay Hagan, called the bill to increase the federal minimum wage a “dangerous idea.” But after winning the nomination in May, he told MSNBC’s Chuck Todd that it would be appropriate for the state legislature to decide whether to raise the minimum wage, though he refused to say whether he, the speaker of the North Carolina house, would support such a move.

That there’s some dissension and subtle repositioning occurring among Republicans on this topic is understandable. The GOP is well placed to retake the Senate this November, but the minimum wage is the one issue that could rob them of that prize. Most Republican elected officials oppose raising it (or even having it) out of a conviction that it will cost jobs (and it might—as many as 500,000 jobs, according to a recent CBO projection), or to match the beliefs of their most conservative voters, or because of pressure from business groups, or all three. Yet they know full well that a higher minimum wage is hugely popular, with 70 percent of voters, including about half of all Republicans, favoring it.

Democrats know that too, which is why they’ve made raising the minimum wage the main weapon in their 2014 electoral arsenal. It’s a core Democratic conviction, an evergreen the party has periodically and profitably turned to for decades. Yet it feels newly relevant in an era of rampant income inequality. And it is the perfect rhetorical snare for any Republican who tries to capitalize on the lack of income growth in the current recovery. The same recent CBO report projects that if the Democrats’ bill becomes law, more than 16.5 million families would see their wages go up—for a collective total of $31 billon— including nearly a million families who would be lifted above the poverty line.

Indeed, Democrats have lined the route to November with a series of minimum wage traps. The April 30 Senate vote was the first; Senate leaders plan to keep bringing the bill up for a vote again and again throughout the summer and fall. Meanwhile, Democrats and groups supporting them, including labor unions, have managed to get initiatives to raise state minimum wage levels on the ballot in several states, including Arkansas and Alaska, where key Senate contests are also taking place. Such ballot measures have been shown to boost Democratic voter turnout in midterm elections by several percentage points.

Whether this will be enough to help the Democrats keep the Senate remains to be seen. But the power of the minimum wage, if handled right, to wreak havoc in the Republican ranks should not be underestimated.

The best way to understand that power is to look at the last time a sitting Democratic president tried to get a minimum wage increase past a recalcitrant Republican Congress in an election year. In 1996, Bill Clinton was running for a second term on the promise to, among other things, raise the minimum wage for the first time in five years, from $4.25 to $5.15 an hour. The House was under the control of market fundamentalists Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay. The Senate was led by the very man running against Clinton for the presidency, Bob Dole. A less accommodating environment, in other words, is hard to imagine. Yet in the end, Clinton not only won reelection, he actually got the minimum wage bill through Congress, driving Dole out of the Senate in the process. That astonishing rout is very much on the minds of senior Obama administration officials, some of whom were directly involved in the 1996 minimum wage fight. So it’s worth looking into that fight in detail.

Bill Clinton occasionally mentioned raising the minimum wage during the 1992 presidential race, but it was not a major feature of his campaign. Nor was there much talk of it from the White House during the first two years of his presidency, despite lobbying by Labor Secretary Robert Reich and liberal stalwarts like Senator Ted Kennedy. Instead, Clinton and his New Democratic advisers were much keener to expand the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), essentially a subsidy for the working poor, which they did in the 1993 budget bill. Because it is targeted to families whose incomes fall below a certain level, the EITC is dollar for dollar much more effective at lifting families out of poverty than the minimum wage, for the simple reason that a large portion of those who earn minimum wage live in middle-income households (about a quarter of them are teenagers). The administration also wanted to avoid picking unnecessary fights with Republicans and business interests while they were trying to pass health care reform in 1994, a policy that, had it passed, would have done far more to improve the lives of lower-income families.

Paul Glastris is the editor in chief of the Washington Monthly.

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