If we accept the current conventional wisdom, which decrees that the GOP is poised to win big 27 days hence, then perhaps Republican candidates would be wise to simply shut their yaps and ride the wave. But, alas, some of the party’s Senate aspirants seem incapable of muzzling certain extremist views; for instance, at least four have now outed themselves as hostile to the size or concept of the federal minimum wage.
In political terms, any Republican who attacks the minimum wage – either because he or she believes that the current federal guarantee of $7.25 an hour is too high; or that any such guarantee is unconstitutional – is just plain stupid. The minimum wage, which primarily benefits the working poor, has long enjoyed massive bipartisan support, both in Congress and in the opinion polls. Any naysaying GOP candidate risks (a) looking like a Scrooge, and (b) awakening the torpid Democratic base.
And don’t just take my word for this. GOP strategist Bradley Blakeman told the Politico website yesterday that it’s “not wise” to attack the minimum wage; in his words, “To engage on economic issues that are not germane to the current concerns of voters is just plain stupid.”
He was specifically referring to tea-party favorite Joe Miller, the Alaska Republican senatorial hopeful, who exposed his inner Herbert Hoover during an appearance last weekend on ABC News. When asked whether there should be a federal minimum wage at all, Miller replied: “There should not be. This is not within the scope of the powers that are given to the federal government.”
Actually, the minimum wage is well within the scope of federal powers – as the U.S. Supreme Court pointed out 69 years ago, in a 9-0 ruling – but Miller is hardly alone in his hostility. John Raese, the wealthy businessman who’s running as a Republican in the West Virginia Senate race, said the other day: “I profess that the minimum wage be eliminated, and we operate on the laws of supply and demand, just like we did before the Depression.”
Then there are the Republicans who grudgingly accept the fact that the federal minimum wage is constitutional (Article I, Section 8 gives Congress the right to regulate interstate commerce), but nevertheless suspect that such a wage might be too high. Tea-party favorite Rand Paul, the Kentucky senatorial candidate, recently said: “I think the question you have to ask is whether or not, when you set the minimum wage, it may cause unemployment.” Dino Rossi, the self-made millionaire and senatorial candidate in Washington, suggested two years ago that his state should create a “training wage” – $1.50 an hour lower than the state minimum.
Then there’s Senate aspirant Linda McMahon, the self-made wrestling millionaire in Connecticut. When asked last week about the minimum wage, she initially acknowledged that “a lot of people have benefited from it in our country.” Nevertheless, “I think we ought to review how much it ought to be, and whether or not we ought to have increases in the minimum wage….I think we ought to look at all of those issues in terms of what mandates have been placed on business.” (By the way, McMahon had no idea what the wage currently pays – not the federal minimum, nor the $8.25 an hour Connecticut minimum.)
The Paul-Rossi-McMahon faction apparently subscribes to the old argument advanced by conservative think tanks – that the working poor’s guaranteed minimal income somehow subverts the economy. (I had this wild theory that the high-flying Wall Street buccaneers have been the true subverters of our economy. But that’s just me.) The thing is, most researchers in recent years have concluded that minimum wage hikes don’t help or hurt the economy. Four years ago, 650 economists, including five Nobel Prize winners and six past presidents of the American Economics Association, signed a letter stating that federal and state minimum wage laws “can significantly improve the lives of low-wage workers and their families, without the adverse effects that critics have claimed.”
And with respect to the political dimensions of this issue, it’s noteworthy to behold Linda McMahon’s frantic attempts to deny what she originally stated. After the Connecticut press reported her desire to “review” the size of the minimum wage, she said she never intended to suggest a cut, and she blamed “headline writers” for spreading that supposedly false suggestion. And during a debate two nights ago, when Democratic candidate Dick Blumenthal said that she might want to lower the minimum wage, she lashed out: “That’s a lie. You never that’s a lie. I never said it.”
Oh please. When McMahon originally voiced her desire to “review” the size of the minimum wage, that was a dog whistle to conservative voters. They knew very well that “review” in that context was a synonym for “cut.” But clearly McMahon understands that going after the minimum wage might well be a turnoff to the state’s massive pool of independent swing voters. Which is why she has been back-pedaling with all deliberate speed.
And no wonder. The last time Congress hiked the minimum wage, back in 2007, the measure passed the Senate on a bipartisan vote of 94 to 3. A year earlier, when the Pew Research Center asked Americans whether they supported a federal wage hike, 83 percent said yes. Eight-seven percent of independents said yes. Even 72 percent of Republicans said yes. The minimum wage is such a settled policy fixture that pollsters don’t even bother asking whether Americans support the concept in principle.
So when extreme tea-partiers like Joe Miller question the concept, and when other Republicans like Paul and McMahon question the size of the wage, they are handing the Democrats a gift-wrapped centrist issue that might help stoke Democratic turnout, particularly among lower-wage union members, and help persuade some swing voters that the GOP wants to make life tougher for struggling Americans. This assumes, of course, that the Democrats are capable of exploiting this opening, but the bottom line is that, in these final weeks, Republicans would be smart to minimize their tea-partyesque talk. If they win and wind up in Washington, they’ll have plenty of opportunities to champion upper-bracket Americans.