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Romney, Santorum, and Pawlenty Endorse a Minimum Wage Hike---Do I See a Republican Trend?

On Friday, several top national Republicans including Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, and Tim Pawlenty all publicly declared their support for raising the federal minimum wage. Such a dramatic political breakthrough—obviously coordinated at the highest levels—greatly increases the likelihood it will actually happen, and tens of millions of low-wage American workers will see a large rise in their annual incomes.

When I first published my 12,000 word article almost three years suggesting a large hike in the minimum wage as a possible solution to a wide range of our social and economic problems, I stood very much alone.

I can’t think of a single significant Republican or conservative who publicly supported a higher minimum wage at that point. Even most of the more highly regarded economic liberals such as Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz had long since relegated the minimum wage to the policies of the past, taking its place in the history books alongside violent factory strikes and coal miner organizing, instead focusing their advocacy on more modern means of assisting the working poor, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit. And given my self-professed ignorance of economics, the 3,000 words I devoted to making a case for a federal minimum wage in the $10 to $12 hourly range were quite cautious, presenting it as a speculative policy suggestion rather than a ringing declaration.

Although various rightwing bloggers quickly endorsed my proposal and National Review discussed it respectfully, the main support unsurprisingly came from the left, with economist James Galbraith and the late Alexander Cockburn enthusiastically backing it, whence the idea gradually entered Democratic policy circles, eventually leading to Sen. Tom Harkin and others to introduce legislation in early 2012. Shortly afterward, the New America Foundation asked me to produce a focused policy paper on the same subject, which attracted much greater attention to my ideas, and led to various speaking engagements and follow-up columns in the year that followed. But still nearly all the growing support for a big minimum wage hike came from liberals, with Republicans mostly ignoring or dismissing the idea.

That all began to change six months ago, when I paid my $200 initiative filing fee and launched my effort to place a $12 minimum wage measure on California’s November 2014 ballot. As my campaign drew considerable media attention, prominent conservatives began considering the issue in a new light, noting my arguments about the hundreds of billions of social welfare subsidies inherent in the current system and recognizing that rewarding work while cutting welfare was a traditionally conservative idea. In the weeks that followed, leading conservative figures such as Phyllis Schlafly and Bill O’Reilly endorsed a minimum wage hike, as did ultra-libertarian billionaire Peter Thiel. Even Walmart’s chief spokesman seemed to support the idea in a Bloomberg interview, though he quickly retreated, perhaps under political pressure from the Congressional Republicans.

But although these trends were very heartening, they were confined almost entirely to ideological circles, without any significant backing from Republican officeholders or candidates. Just in the last few weeks, the Senate Republicans successfully filibustered a minimum wage hike, while the House Republicans refused to even consider bringing the measure to the floor, maintaining their phalanx of near-unanimous opposition. The effort to raise the minimum wage seemed dead at the national level, though a wage hike in California and various other states seemed reasonably likely this year.

But on Friday, that settled political landscape was transformed as Mitt Romney, the most recent Republican presidential nominee, declared his support on the MSNBC show of Joe Scarborough, himself a former Republican Congressman. As the most recent Republican presidential nominee and a cadet member of America’s ruling financial oligarchy, Romney stands as a Republican pillar, and given his notorious caution such a his decision would only have come after exhaustive discussion. It appears certain that a major segment of the Republican Establishment has decided to embrace rather than oppose the minimum wage case, presumably after extensive polling and focus group analysis.

I think Romney and his advisers fully recognize that if he had taken this sort of economic position two years ago, he would be sitting in the White House today rather than traveling the rubber-chicken circuit, and perhaps a third major run for the presidency lurks in the back of their minds. One of the incidents that doomed Romney’s 2012 candidacy was his remark that 47% of all American voters paid no income taxes and were therefore deaf to GOP economic arguments. I have pointed out that a $12 minimum wage would shift tens of millions of American low-wage workers into the net taxpayer class, and perhaps Romney’s people have considered this point.

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Admittedly, Romney is very much an establishmentarian Republican, whose conservative credentials are mixed at best, and he hardly inspires the party faithful. But Romney’s support for a minimum wage hike was immediately echoed by former Sen. Rick Santorum, a darling of the hard-right and Christian conservatives, whose enthusiastic supporters had enabled his under-financed presidential campaign to sweep several states and give Romney enormous trouble in 2012. When the top two Republicans from the most recent presidential campaign—representing entirely different wings of the party—simultaneously endorse a minimum wage hike, something is definitely afoot. And former governor Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, also once considered a viable presidential or vice-presidential nominee, quickly joined the chorus.

I think a powerful conventional wisdom may be forming among Republican consultants and pollsters that the economic concerns of ordinary Americans must be forcefully addressed and that the traditional conservative nostrum of cutting taxes on the rich has long since passed its expiration date. As Santorum said in his interview, the Republicans are perceived as the party of Scrooge and that must change if they have any chance of winning a national election.

Raising taxes to fund massive new social welfare programs would be an ideological anathema, but raising the minimum wage and thereby automatically reducing social welfare spending is a different matter entirely and also vastly more popular, both among liberals and conservatives.

In our modern personality-based system, presidential candidates and candidacies drive the political positions of both parties, and if consultants inform the leading Republicans eyeing a 2016 run that they need to endorse a minimum wage hike to maintain their viability, a tidal wave might quickly develop. Nearly every conservative policy expert seeks to attach himself to successful presidential campaign, and if the major candidates support the notion of raising worker wages, so will the thinktanks and pundits. The more dogmatic libertarians have always denounced the very notion of a minimum wage, but except for them, most conservatives have never paid a great deal of attention to the question, merely worried about its practicalities, and if the major conservative policy centers decide that supporting a much higher minimum wage is the truly conservative thing to do, the Republican rank-and-file will quickly fall into line.

House Speaker John Boehner may personally detest a higher minimum wage, but if the likely Republican names at the top of the 2016 ticket endorse the idea, backed by most of the pundits and policy experts, he certainly won’t resist.

The Republican declarations of Romney, Santorum, and Pawlenty on Friday may be the first of many to come, and American workers may soon see annual wages rise by as much as $150 billion, a development that might have seemed beyond the realm of possibility back in 2011.

At the very least, a $12 or $13 minimum wage in California now seems in the cards. How can moderate Democrats resist the effort, thereby placing themselves to the economic right of Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, and Bill O’Reilly?

 
• Category: Economics • Tags: Minimum Wage, Republicans 
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  1. As soon as I hear Mitt Romney endorse an increase of the minimum wage I thought of Ron Unz. The bipartisan shift on this issue is impressive and is a startling contrast with the debate on the minimum wage in years past.

    At this point, the main constituency which is still adamantly opposed to boosting the minimum wage consists of economists in academia and think tanks. These are often the same economists who favor amnesty and open borders.

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  2. Anonymous says:     Show CommentNext New Comment

    Why pull punches? Make the minimum wage $100 an hour and put everyone back on the tax rolls. Social welfare spending could be cut too. Of course, inflation would annihilate the wage gains and millions would be thrown out of work, but at least on paper there’d be a living wage.

    Since the pro-minimum wage hike folks think that money itself is wealth, employers could use any scrip–Monopoly money would do nicely–to pay their newly well-off employees. What’s not to like?

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