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May 01, 2014 9:58 AM Your Hard Line Is My Compromise

By Ed Kilgore

In the course of discussing the politics of the minimum wage at TNR, Danny Vinik notes something interesting and important about Republican positioning:

Consider the timing. By sheer coincidence, I’m sure, Democrats scheduled this first minimum wage vote in the spring—months and months before the November election—while Republicans are still contesting their primaries.
To the extent that pandering to the right explains the uniformity of opposition, it confirms a key data point about the GOP and the conservative movement. They don’t want to deal on this issue because from where they stand, tolerating the existing minimum wage is a concession.

One of main, but to a remarkable extent underestimated, aspects of the recent radicalization of the GOP is that grudging acceptance of the New Deal/Great Society legacy that both parties largely took for granted for decades is now considered a generous—and perhaps even dangerously unprincipled—compromise for GOPers. Yet because they know this posture is, to put it mildly, controversial, they don’t much admit this to the general public. Truth is, there is no argument against increasing the minimum wage to restore its past value that isn’t an argument against having a minimum wage to begin with. That’s not a position that is politically kosher in most parts of the country—just yet, at least. So we have this fight on the margins, in the shadows, over procedural issues and linkages to other issues—everything other than the basic conservative proposition that “free markets” should set wages (and working conditions) without interference from government, or for that matter, “distortion” by collective bargaining.

In the mental world in which much of the GOP’s conservative “base” lives, compensation for labor is the result of free individual contracting between employers and employees. (This is a complete hallucination when it comes to wage workers, of course, but it’s a powerful ideological construct nonetheless.). Anything that forces wages above their “natural” or “market” level robs other workers of jobs, by definition. This is how you get Ted Cruz claiming to oppose a minimum wage increase because he cares about African-American and Hispanic teenagers, not because he sides with employers as a class against their largely and increasingly powerless employees as a class.

Cruz is regarded by his fans as a “principled” conservative because he articulates wildly controversial positions that other, less principled conservatives hide or hedge. And that’s why he and people like him exercise disproportionate power in the GOP: in their hearts, Republicans know Ted Cruz is right. So they play a double game, carrying on one conversation with “the base” and another with everyone else. And they call this second conversation “compromise.”

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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