March 7, 2013

Nancy Pelosi today renewed the Democratic push for a minimum wage hike, supporting legislation by Senator Tom Harkin and Rep. George Miller to gradually move the minimum wage to $10.10 — and then keep it there by linking it to inflation.

The politics of this issue have always played well for Democrats; raising the minimum wage seems to be perpetually popular.

So what would ordinarily happen now? In a world of divided government with two sensible parties, the logical compromise is that Republicans would trade the minimum wage hike — a popular policy Democrats care more about than Republicans anyway — for something which Republicans care about more than Democrats. That’s what happened last time, when Republicans were able to extract tax cuts for business in exchange for supporting the increase, with the whole thing going into a larger bill that had plenty of things for both parties.

And this gets at a larger problem that explains a lot about dysfunction in Washington right now: Republicans have largely given up on developing specific policy goals while becoming more and more dedicated to opposing compromise on everything as a some sort of fundamental principle.

Think about it: what is the Republican agenda item the party could trade for a minimum wage increase? What’s the GOP policy request on health care, other than the dream of repealing the Affordable Care Act? What’s their policy request on climate? Energy? Education?

I mostly have no idea. Some Republicans do seem to have strong policy preferences on immigration, but the GOP is internally split on that one, so that’s no help. On gun violence, most Republicans want to do nothing, while the few who want to appear eager to act are mostly not ready to support specific proposals.

The positions that Republicans seem to really care about are symbolic, and not substantive. And it’s very hard to cut deals on symbolic issues.

The result is that when they have the votes to block a popular Democratic initiative they block it and suffer the public opinion hit; when they don’t, they surrender (see, for example, the Violence Against Women Act). The healthy democratic alternative of cutting a deal that can leave everyone happy? Too often, it just isn’t available to today’s Republican Party.