Minimum Wage is a Self-Made GOP Problem

05/08/2015 03:58 pm ET | Updated May 08, 2016
Drew Angerer via Getty Images

Too bad George W. Bush is persona non grata among congressional Republicans. If he were less unpopular, they might find in the waning years of his presidency an example of what to do about a vexing issue facing them in 2016, an issue Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called that "gosh darn" minimum wage.

In their bid to take over the Congress in 2006, the Democrats vowed to raise a federal minimum wage that had remained unchanged since the second term of the Clinton administration. After sweeping midterm victories in both chambers, congressional Democrats put the issue on their agenda, calling for an incremental increase from $5.15 an hour to $7.25 by 2009.

Republicans could look to George W. Bush for an example of what to do on the minimum wage. But they won't. And it's going to hurt them in 2016.

That wasn't enough for Barack Obama, who vowed to raise the minimum wage to $9.50 by 2011 if elected president. His promise, however, came before the Great Recession cast a pall over many of his campaign promises. The minimum wage has remained $7.25 since he took office. (It is now higher in some cities and states; New York State recently raised it to $15 an hour by the end of 2018 in the New York City metropolitan area and $12.50 upstate.)

So the push to raise the minimum wage isn't new. That's a bit counter-intuitive given the attention being paid to economic inequality, an issue that arose in the aftermath of the 2007 financial collapse. Even Republican contenders for the White House are obliged at least to pay lip service to the issue. And to be sure, a stagnant minimum wage is the bedrock of economic inequality. But the thread of the debate began during the second Bush administration, which was hostile or indifferent to the law, and allowed the purchasing power of the base wage to erode while the cost of living continued to climb or, indeed, soar. (To briefly illustrate, using 2013 dollars: if the minimum wage were $7.25 in New York City, the actual value would be about $4 an hour.)

What did President Bush do that could serve as a model for today's congressional Republicans? First, two observations. One, Bush's presidency was nearing historic levels of unpopularity by 2007. Two, voters tend to punish the party in power in hard times. The 2008 election was going to be rough for any GOP candidate.

But also keep in mind the nature of the business wing of the GOP. It is against wage mandates, because wages cut into profits. But the faction is also politically canny. It was willing to concede to demands for a higher minimum wage, if conceding weakened Democrats in 2008. Put another way: if Republicans had continued to resist raising the wage, then the wage issue may have become more potent for Barack Obama. So the business wing of the Republican Party -- including 82 members of the House, all but three senators, and the president -- held its nose and supported a wage hike.

The conservative wing of the GOP, on the other hand, is the opposite of canny. It does not see the wisdom of conceding on the minimum wage, even as the minimum wage has taken on more significance than it had a decade ago. Conservatives believe losing now means losing forever, and losing is inconceivable given the righteousness of their cause. Therefore, the more they resist raising the minimum wage, the more potent it will be for the Democratic Party's nominee. As Harry Reid told The Hill earlier this week: "If Republicans don't do something about it, it's a major issue."

Reid was commenting on the most recent effort to exploit conservative intransigence. In the past, the Democrats called for $10.10 an hour. This week, Senator Patty Murray introduced a bill raising the wage to $12 by 2020. The Raise the Wage Act, she said, would affect 38 million workers. Moreover, she was clearly relishing the moment. "I want to hear what the Republican presidential candidates have to say about this," she said.

And they responded in predictable fashion.

Ted Cruz said the bill would be a "job-killing" disaster. Marco Rubio warned that workers would be replaced by robots. Scott Walker questioned the validity of wage mandates in general. Rand Paul said a base wage is good for young people but nobody else. And Jeb Bush, who most represents the interests of the business wing of the Republican Party, punted to the "private sector."

You've got to wonder whom they think they are speaking for. According to a February poll by the Associated Press, 6 in 10 favor raising the minimum wage, including 40 percent of Republicans. In 2013, Gallup found more than 71 percent in favor, including half of Republicans. Last year, a Washington Post/ABC News survey found that 50 percent of respondents are more likely to vote for candidates who favor raising the minimum wage.

Clearly, the Republican presidential field isn't speaking for the majority, or even for members of their party who see the good in increasing the wage. Jeb Bush is speaking for a business faction that fears higher wages eating into profits, while the rest is speaking for conservatives who believe compromise equals surrender.

The smart thing would be to give in now to prevent the minimum wage from haunting the Republican candidate later. But don't hold your breath. On the occasion last summer when Mitch McConnell complained about the Democrats proposing to raise that "gosh darn" minimum wage (once again!), he added one more comment suggesting there's no returning to the political pragmatism the George W. Bush administration exhibited in 2007.

"These people believe in all the wrong things," he said.

John Stoehr is the managing editor of The Washington Spectator and a columnist for The National Memo, where this article originally appeared.

Follow me on Twitter @johnastoehr!