Every so often I feel the need to write the column that says: The one thing our political system needs more than any other single feature is a strengthened moderate wing of the Republican Party. I say this of course as a liberal, whose party registration is Democratic, which means you might think I’d say we need more liberals; and while I think that, I believe without question that having a strong moderate faction within the GOP would do far more to change our politics for the better than—yes—even having more Americans who think exactly as I do!
Having more liberals would if anything merely deepen the intensity of our civil war and produce more stalemate. The presence of a more muscular moderate Republican wing, however, would change everything. Then, there would be pressure on Republicans to adopt some sensible moderate positions, instead of what we have today, which is unceasing pressure to play this game of one-upmanship to see who can take the most reactionary, ignorant, and borderline racist position imaginable. Then, you’d have some Republicans from blue districts and states who would find it to be in their electoral self-interest to compromise with Democrats and vote for a Democratic president’s bill once in a while. Then, our political culture really would change.
And, then, people like Jeb Bush, the alleged moderate in the GOP presidential field, wouldn’t say jaw-dropping things like this, about the minimum wage, which he said Tuesday in (where else, somehow) South Carolina:
“We need to leave it to the private sector. I think state minimum wages are fine. The federal government shouldn’t be doing this. This is one of those poll-driven deals. It polls well, I’m sure—I haven’t looked at the polling, but I’m sure on the surface without any conversation, without any digging into it, people say, ‘Yeah, everybody’s wages should be up.’ And in the case of Wal-Mart, they have raised wages because of supply and demand and that’s good.
“But the federal government doing this will make it harder and harder for the first rung of the ladder to be reached, particularly for young people, particularly for people that have less education.”
Now it’s great that Wal-Mart and McDonald’s and Target and the others are voluntarily raising their minimum wages. One might argue that we’ve come to a particularly sad pass when the Walton family is doing more for its beleaguered workers than Congress can rouse itself to, but however you want to spin it, good for Wal-Mart.
But to take this little boomlet from what is still a small number of employers (although of course they do employ millions of people) and say that’s it, we should now have no federal minimum wage, is logical sleight of hand, and it’s a very radical position. A little background.
We first got a minimum wage in 1935. Then the Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional (which could happen again, with this lot). Then it was passed again in 1938. We’ve had it ever since, although, as you probably know, it hasn’t gone up since 2009. That rise was the third and final phase of a 2007 law that raised the wage in increments. We haven’t had a new law to that effect in those eight years since.
It is true that in the 1980s, economists debated whether a federal minimum wage was desirable. Even The New York Times once editorialized against it, in 1987. At the time, economists thought it had deleterious effects on low-wage employment. Then, in the mid-1990s, the economists David Card and Alan Krueger studied this question in New Jersey and Pennsylvania (the former had increase its minimum wage, while the latter had not), and they found no employment impact.
That changed the academic consensus. An increase was passed in 1996. Some conservative economists continued to spoon out the “job-killer” Kool-Aid, as indeed they still do, but evidence continues to support the idea that there is no serious job-killing effect.
The parties disagreed strongly about how much the wage should be increased, but at least they agreed on increasing it—the 2007 increase, for example, passed the Senate 94-3, and the House by 233-82. John McCain, the GOP’s 2008 standard bearer, voted for the 2007 increase. And Mitt Romney, the 2012 nominee, ran on supporting a modest increase and even indexing the minimum wage to inflation, which Barack Obama also supported and which would prevent Congress from having to pass legislation on the question ever again—a pretty progressive position, really.
So the last two mainstream, establishment GOP candidates—the last three, counting George W. Bush—supported an increase. But now, the mainstream, establishment candidate is against it. And if the mainstream, establishment candidate is against it, where are the others going to line up?
And so, one more hard-right pirouette by a party that keeps finding new ways to radicalize itself. But this one is particularly shocking coming from Bush, because it means that the abolition of a federal minimum wage of any sort is now a mainstream Republican position. And remember: The minimum wage, if it had kept pace with inflation, would be around $13 today, so it’s already insanely low at $7.25.
Which brings me back to how I opened this column. If there were a moderate wing of the GOP, this is most certainly an issue on which we’d have bipartisan agreement. The position Bush has just embraced would be seen across party lines for exactly the radical pandering that it is. Indeed he would not have taken it. That would be a nice world, but the world we have is the one we have. And if Bush can take this position, completely out of step with his party’s conservative mainstream in recent history, then what else will he prove himself capable of?