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June 12, 2014 11:42 AM The Minimum Wage Fights of 1996 and 2014

By Ed Kilgore

It’s reasonably well-established by now that both congressional (and in some cases, state-level) Democrats and the White House are fully committed to making a minimum wage increase a signature issue for the 2014 campaign, and perhaps beyond into the presidential cycle. And it’s increasingly understood as both a “wedge issue” that divides Republican elected officials from their own rank-and-file (and from political independents), and as a rallying point for the Democratic “base,” not to mention a long-range partisan talking point that exposes GOP indifference towards economic inequality.

It’s been largely forgotten, though, that in almost every respect this campaign is a replication of the way in which Democrats used the same issue in 1996—forgotten, that is, outside the circle of former Clintonites who now work for Barack Obama.

In the new issue of the Washington Monthly, Paul Glastris thoroughly reviews the minimum wage fight of 1996, which divided the GOP, changed the issue landscape of the presidential race, and even drove GOP presidential nominee Bob Dole from his perch as Majority Leader of the Senate.

Then as now, the president’s embrace of the minimum wage issue was perceived as a “move to the left,” but actually reflected one part of a broad-based effort to “make work pay” for those on the margins of the labor market, and as a counter to GOP claims that only high earners and capitalists were relevant players in the economy. Then as now, congressional Democrats found ways to engineer frequent votes on the minimum wage issue, even though they didn’t control either congressional chamber. Then as now, Republicans were torn between opposing a popular minimum wage increase entirely as a “job-killer” (which of course it did not turn out to be at all) and accepting it in exchange for legislative deals including some of their own economic agenda items (which they ultimately did in 1996).

Glastris notes that the remarkable parallels between 1996 and 2014 with respect to the minimum wage issue are limited by some key differences:

Then it was a presidential election year, now it’s a midterm. The economy in 1996 was more clearly on the mend than it is today (though the full force of the ’90s boom wasn’t yet obvious to most Americans). The Republican Congress Clinton faced was not as implacably hostile to compromise as the current one, which has far fewer GOP moderates and a larger base of hard-core conservatives. Clinton was also able to fit the minimum wage issue into his broader theory about economic growth and the value of work—that work needs to be both required (via welfare reform) and rewarded (via an expanded EITC and a higher minimum wage)—that resonated with the public. For all these reasons, Obama and congressional Democrats will have a tougher time using the minimum wage issue to divide and conquer the other party.

But on the other hand, he also observes, income inequality is a public preoccupation in way that it wasn’t in the 90s, and Obama is being advised by people who have the benefit of personal experience in the earlier fight. I’d add that Democrats currently control the Senate, which means high-profile votes on the minimum wage can be arranged by Harry Reid almost at will.

I’d echo Glastris in suggesting that the President Obama hasn’t mastered the presentation of a coherent economic policy message like President Clinton did (and still does, as his 2012 Democratic Convention speech showed) so regularly. And in terms of ultimately accomplishing a minimum wage increase, it’s not at all clear today’s Republicans would rather switch than fight.

But notwithstanding these differences in context and leadership, it is clear that what worked for Democrats in 1996 can work again today, if only to improve the 2014 landscape and sharpen partisan differences for a disengaged and shrinking swing electorate and for discouraged Democrats. That’s quite enough to justify keeping the drive alive right through to November.

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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