Why do Democrats keep emphasizing the minimum wage, pay equity, unemployment insurance, and — yup — the Medicaid expansion?
Ed Kilgore suggests an answer: Because economic issues and policies that would strengthen the safety net are looking increasingly like effective wedges to use against Republicans over the long term.
Kilgore points to a Public Policy Polling survey that finds support – in Texas! — for raising the minimum wage, the Paycheck Fairness Act, and even the Medicaid expansion, with lots of independents and Republicans backing those things. He comments:
These are by any definition “wedge issues” which divide Republicans and counter GOP advantages among independents. They also force Republicans into counter-arguments that expose the underlying radicalism of conservative ideology. There’s absolutely no reason on earth Democrats shouldn’t talk about them at every available opportunity.
Let me add that polling very clearly reveals this to be true nationally, too. Recent national polls have shown majority support for the minimum wage hike and unemployment benefits, including majorities of independents, but also including sizable blocs of Republicans, too. Indeed, there is a striking breakdown in that polling between non-Tea Party Republicans (who actually side with Dems and the rest of the public on those things) and Tea Party Republicans, who are isolated in opposition to them.
Meanwhile, on the Medicaid expansion, one 2013 poll found that large majorities of people even in the deep south support it, including 47 percent of self-described conservatives. More recently polls have found majority support for the expansion in Georgia and Kentucky.
In the polling this pattern actually goes to larger philosophical questions. The GOP’s stance on many economic issues seems to remain in thrall to the basic Tea Party economic worldview, which holds that a leading problem in American life is excessive downward redistribution of wealth, unfairly penalizing hard work and discouraging investment by job creators while government aid traps people in dependency.
Some national polls show broad disagreement with this basic worldview. Pew found that a majority favors taxing the rich to fund programs for the poor, and a plurality of Americans think government aid to the poor does more good than harm. CBS found that Americans disagree with the idea that unemployment insurance makes you less motivated to look for work by 54-42. In those cases independents sided with the public at large.
Obviously all this doesn’t tell us much about the immediate political situation, which is dictated by the fact that control of the Senate in 2014 will hinge on outcomes in conservative states. (Ross Douthat thinks GOP chances in 2014 could be compromised by the party’s “weak message.”) But beyond 2014, with Dems increasingly developing an affirmative economic policy agenda with an eye on the changing national electorate, all this could have long term ramifications. As Jonathan Chait puts it, in a piece raising the possibility that the GOP may move to the center to remain competitive in national elections:
My belief, of which I obviously can’t be certain, is that conservatism as we know it is doomed. I believe this because the virulent opposition to the welfare state we see here is almost completely unique among major conservative parties across the world. In no other advanced country do leading figures of governing parties propose the denial of medical care to their citizens or take their ideological inspiration from crackpots like Ayn Rand.
I don’t know if conservatism as we know it is doomed. But it does seem clear that the GOP’s continuing adherence to the Tea Party economic worldview — which some conservative reformers have recently been challenging — could also prove an obstacle, along with the failure to evolve on immigration and gay rights, to broadening the GOP’s long term national appeal. Kilgore is right: Dems should talk up these economic wedge issues at every opportunity.