During last Thursday’s Democratic presidential debate, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton added a new wrinkle to the argument over the federal minimum wage, saying that if elected president, she would sign a bill raising it to $15 an hour -- the same number championed by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
The current federal minimum wage is just $7.25 an hour. Throughout the primary, Clinton has argued that $12 an hour would be a more appropriate number, and that once a $12 federal minimum wage is in place, she'd encourage states and cities to go even higher if their local economies could handle it.
Clinton's stated willingness to sign a $15-an-hour bill complicated the case she'd been making for months. Sure enough, on Sunday, Clinton clarified that she would only sign such a bill under certain conditions. The new $15 wage floor would have to be phased in gradually, she said, and areas with lower costs of living would be subject to lower minimum wages to start.
One thing, at least, is clear: The idea of a $12 minimum wage is negotiable for Clinton, depending on what's politically possible. Given that, it's not hard to wonder whether her opponent might be open to negotiation too. Would a President Sanders bend on his $15 stance and be amenable to a $12 minimum wage if that's all he could get? Or would he veto such a bill as insufficient?
The Sanders campaign won’t directly answer this question. In the spin room after Thursday's debate, two representatives straight-out punted.
“I'm not sure,” sad Nina Turner, a former state senator in Ohio and a prominent Sanders surrogate. “You would have to ask Senator Sanders. But one thing that I can say about him: He is for lifting people out of poverty and making sure that they have a living wage, and he's been very firm about the need to raise that wage to $15 an hour. And I've talked to people who do need that money.”
"Well, I think you would have to directly ask Senator Sanders that question,” said Symone Sanders (no relation), a spokeswoman for the campaign. "I haven't asked Senator Sanders myself, 'Would you sign the $12 bill or would you not sign the bill?' But what I can say is he is a staunch advocate and proponent that we need a $15 minimum wage, that there are people in this country working 40, 50, 60 hours a week and they can't earn enough money to put food on the table for their families. He has also said that we don't have to settle for incremental change, and our opinion is, a $12 minimum wage is incremental change.”
Having been told to ask Sanders directly, The Huffington Post did the next best thing: We emailed the campaign for clarification. A spokesman, Warren Gunnels, called back and made the case that to answer the question would be to negotiate with oneself.
“[Sanders] is strongly supportive of a $15-an-hour minimum wage, and he will do everything that he can as president to make sure that Congress passes a $15 minimum wage,” Gunnels said. “I think you've seen during this campaign, as he's said over and over again that he cannot do this alone, that this would take a strong grassroots movement of working people to make Congress do this. But Senator Sanders starts with a full loaf here, and the full loaf is $15 an hour. If you start off with half a loaf, you end up getting crumbs.”
In short: Sanders wants $15 an hour, he will demand that Congress pass a bill for $15 an hour, and he won’t discuss what might happen if he's unsuccessful.
If you start off with half a loaf, you end up getting crumbs. Warren Gunnels, spokesman for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)
There's certainly a reasonable argument to be made for this position. Minimum wages are a negotiation in Congress, and it pays to start off aiming high, knowing the opposition will try to haggle you down. In 2013, many Democrats grumbled when President Barack Obama put forth a humble $9 proposal.
They later had to convince him to back their own, more ambitious bill. And much of the progress made by liberals on the city and state level has come courtesy of the aggressive push for $15. Republicans and business lobbies are much more willing to come to the table and hash out a deal for $10 or $12 when they're worried about $15 becoming a reality.
In this regard, Clinton's and Sanders' respective positions on the issue say as much about their approach to politics as their convictions in policy. Clinton's openness to a $15 minimum wage could be seen as reflecting a common criticism from Sanders supporters -- namely, that her positions shift depending on the situation, and that she's too comfortable with incremental progress. Meanwhile, critics of Sanders might see his insistence on $15 as evidence that his proposals are too pie-in-the-sky to withstand the realities of Capitol Hill. Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), a Clinton supporter, described the difference as being aspirational versus being pragmatic, "which in some ways describes the differences between the two candidates."
That said, there's reason to think that Sanders would sign a $12-an-hour minimum wage bill as president -- that, indeed, he might be crazy not to. Talk of "half a loaf" notwithstanding, bringing the federal minimum wage up to $12 from $7.25 would be a huge victory by almost any reasonable measure. After all, the federal minimum wage has not been raised at all since 2009 -- and as Baldwin noted, when Democrats pushed for a $10.10 minimum wage in 2013, they were met with "absolute obstruction from Republicans." Even if Democrats take control of both chambers of Congress this November, there's no guarantee they would have the necessary votes to get to $15.
Sanders certainly knows this. Back in 2013, the Senate Democratic caucus was firmly behind the push for $10.10 an hour. Sanders himself co-sponsored the bill and argued repeatedly into the spring of 2014 that the minimum wage needed to be $10.10 an hour “at least.”
In the spring of 2015, the party pushed higher. Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) introduced legislation in late April 2015 calling for a federal minimum wage of $12 an hour.
But on that one, Sanders took a pass. He announced his run for the White House around that time and a few months later introduced his own $15-an-hour bill. Shortly thereafter, Sanders, who'd been making the case for $10.10 an hour not long ago, was describing $12 an hour as wholly insufficient in meeting the needs of the working poor.
Why the change? Gunnels said that Sanders began listening more closely to the people at the front lines of the debate – the activists and fast-food workers – and adapted his legislation accordingly.
“The told him loudly and clearly that they could not survive on $7.25 an hour, $8 an hour, $10 an hour,” said Gunnels. “If they're going to be able to feed their families and live a life of dignity, they need to make at least $15 an hour and they also need to have a union.”
Certainly, others have listened too. In short order, the Fight For $15 movement has moved from the liberal fringes to the white-hot center of the Democratic presidential primary. But so far, there's one important constituency that hasn't gravitated toward $15 -- namely, Sanders’ colleagues in the Senate. His bill currently has five co-sponsors. Murray’s bill, for $12 an hour, has 33.