To Make Their Victory Durable, the GOP Must Fix the Minimum Wage

It makes a whole lot of sense for Republicans to embrace the minimum wage, and many GOP leaders already have. But will Mitch McConnell stop them?

Emil Lendof/The Daily Beast

For a party that just won a wave election, Republican prospects are dour. Their long-term weaknesses remain significant. Even now, the GOP still polls less well than the Democratic Party with a surly electorate. Conservative thinkers and strategists recognize that “The Republican brand is [still] tarnished,” and further warn that “Republicans must show they can truly govern … or lose again very shortly.”

As George W. Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson explained, “Republicans are often perceived as indifferent to working-class struggles—because they sometimes are. The GOP appeal seems designed for a vanishing electorate.” Indeed, Gerson fears that the midterm victory may only accelerate “trends that are gradually condemning the Republican Party to regional appeal and national irrelevance.”

The irony of this dilemma is that the GOP has a ready-made policy agenda that can resurrect their brand with working-class voters while also advancing conservative ideals. This conservative dream policy? Fix the minimum wage.

Historically, conservatives treated the minimum wage as an affront to free labor and a step on a slippery slope towards statism. This aversion is hogwash, an ideological relic analogous to the Left’s historic fondness for public sector unions. A minimum wage is consistent with conservative ideals, for four reasons.

First, as conservative businessman Ron Unz has explained, a higher minimum wage would reduce welfare spending. This welfare spending discourages work, increases taxes, and operates as a hidden and inefficient subsidy to low-wage businesses. Unz also notes that a higher minimum wage would discourage illegal immigration and boost consumer spending. A predictable, inflation-adjusted minimum wage would make business planning easier.

Second, available evidence supports these arguments and disproves conservative fears. Switzerland has a higher minimum wage than the United States, at roughly $15 per hour, but also has a more competitive economy. Swiss leaders also dispel the “slippery slope” idea by repeatedly rejecting substantial minimum wage increases. Additionally, many top economists suspect that a higher minimum wage in the United States might boost the economy, not reduce employment. Overall, the weight of the empirical evidence supports these essentially conservative arguments for the minimum wage.

Third and perhaps most importantly, a minimum wage creates intergenerational opportunity that is vital for the conservative worldview. Today, economic mobility between generations is lower in the United States than in many countries in Europe. Evidence demonstrates that children raised in extreme poverty have radically less lifetime opportunity than middle class Americans. A higher minimum wage would help encourage a culture of work and a level playing field for the rising generation.

Finally, the political realities of this issue are overwhelming. In the near term, a hike is popular. A USA Today/Pew Research poll last year reported 71 percent support, including 50 percent support among Republicans, and on Tuesday voters turned out to support minimum wage hikes in red states like Arkansas and South Dakota. Even employers tend to agree: a recent survey of employers reported by the Huffington Post showed that 60 pecent of employers thought a higher minimum wage would help grow the economy.

In the long-term, as Unz has noted, a minimum wage turns more voters into taxpayers, altering Mitt Romney’s infamous “taker’s math” in favor of the GOP. More dramatically, as billionaire Nick Hanauer has pointed out, in the absence of a minimum wage, it’s impossible to rule out a radical redistributive upheaval along the lines of what has destroyed prosperity in Latin America and Africa.

The leadership of the GOP seems not to realize the massive opportunity in front of them. Newly empowered Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, in a previous private meeting with wealthy donors, said he would stop a minimum wage from even coming to a vote. Conservative columnist Reihan Salam suggested that GOP-backed minimum wage discussions might be feints for appearances only.

Tuesday’s results, however, added momentum to the Republican living wage caucus, despite McConnell’s victory. The Republican’s national platform emphasized populist economic themes. Charlie Baker in Massachusetts and Charles Rauner in Illinois scored upset gubernatorial wins with pro-minimum messages. Other like-minded Republican winners this week include Rick Snyder, Asa Hutchinson, and Shelley Moore Capito, expanding a caucus that already included established conservative leaders such as Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney, and Bill O’Reilly. Even Republicans who opposed a federal wage hike in this cycle were often supportive or silent about state and local increases.

If the GOP uses the minimum wage in this way, they will ironically be stealing a page from Bill Clinton’s playbook. Twenty-five years ago, Democrats faced the same challenges in reverse. They had used the advantages of incumbency to hold the House for decades, but performed poorly in six Presidential contests (only winning narrowly in 1976 in the wake of the Watergate scandal). As political journalist Molly Ball recently wrote, Democrats lost elections during this period because they were seen as a “soft on crime” party of “welfare rights.”

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Then along came Bill Clinton and other centrists, who changed the party’s stance on crime and welfare. This ushered in a 16-year period in which Democrats had a net positive public favorability rating of plus 15 percent (vs. today’s GOP net favorability of minus 25 percent). As Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus lamented, since Clinton, the GOP has “not really won a decisive presidential election.”

Even as a Democrat, I am rooting for the GOP to seize this slam-dunk opportunity. Both the country and the Democratic Party are better served when a responsible Republican Party offers conservative solutions to common problems. Republicans can change their brand, appeal to the electorate, shrink government, grow the economy, and save capitalism. Along the way, they will also give moderate American voters a real choice, rather than ceding a monopoly over national political discourse to the Democratic Party.