Republicans don’t like talking about the minimum wage, which is only natural given that their position is one that is extremely unpopular (raising the minimum to $10.10 an hour, the level advocated by Democrats, regularly polls at 70 percent or more). But while their political problem on the issue stems from their policy stance, the way they do talk about it, when they absolutely have to, makes the problem worse. Witness what New Jersey governor and likely presidential candidate Chris Christie now has to say about it:
“I’m tired of hearing about the minimum wage,” Christie said in a keynote speech at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “I really am. I don’t think there’s a mother or a father sitting around the kitchen table tonight in America saying, ‘You know, honey, if our son or daughter could just make a higher minimum wage, my God, all of our dreams would be realized.’ “
“Is that what parents aspire to for our children?” Christie continued, “They aspire to a greater, growing America, where their children have the ability to make much more money and have much great success than they have, and that’s not about a higher minimum wage.”
That is some weird logic. We need to keep the minimum wage low, because everybody wants to make a lot more than minimum wage, and an increase won’t make anyone’s dreams come true. It’s kind of like saying to a hungry person: “I could give you a sandwich, but I know what you’d really love is an eight-course meal at the Four Seasons. So no sandwich.” Or saying to the public: “It would be great if we could magically eliminate 100 percent of crime, but since we can’t, we’re not going to bother to have a police force.”
Christie’s exasperation is no doubt widely shared among Republicans. They just can’t seem to grasp why anyone would care about the minimum wage. No matter how many times you explain to them that it isn’t just teenage kids working their after-school jobs who make it, but people trying to raise families (the Economic Policy Institute estimates that increasing the minimum wage would directly or indirectly give a raise to 27.8 million American workers), that fact just doesn’t register.
I could make a conjecture about the psychological underpinnings of that, which would have something to do with the natural contempt many on the right feel for people who are economically struggling. But let’s look at what Florida governor Rick Scott said in a debate last night:
Q: Do you support the concept of a minimum wage?
Q: What should it be?
Scott: How would I know? The private sector decides wages.
Right, and the point of a minimum wage is that the government is setting the minimum, because we have collectively decided what the minimum should be. Either you think there ought to be a minimum wage, or you think the private sector should decide the minimum. You can’t believe in both.
Wisconsin governor Scott Walker got asked the same question last week. “I’m not going to repeal it,” he said. “But I don’t think it serves a purpose because we’re debating then about what the lowest levels are at. I want people to make, like I said the other night, two or three times that.”
I suppose this is now the standard Republican dodge to questions about the minimum wage — we shouldn’t raise it, because it would be even better if people made more! — and it’s so transparently dumb that even voters can see through it. For her part, Walker’s opponent Mary Burke has been pushing the issue hard ever since Walker ran into trouble on it, and the race is currently close to tied.
There’s no question that Republicans aren’t helped by the simple fact that this is an issue people understand and have clear ideas about, and most voters are at odds with the GOP position. But the Republicans’ scorn for the idea that anyone cares about raising the minimum wage seems particularly misguided, given that the GOP is already widely seen as the party of the rich.
This year there are initiatives to raise the minimum wage on five state ballots, including three — Arkansas, Alaska, and South Dakota — where there are close Senate races. Because the federal minimum wage was last increased in 2009 and its value erodes every year, there has been tremendous momentum to increase it at the state and local level. In 2014 alone, bills to increase the minimum wage have been introduced in 34 states, and increases have been enacted in 10 states plus D.C. Minimum wage initiatives that appear on the ballot almost always win. If nobody cared about what the minimum wage is, that wouldn’t be the case. You’d think by now Republicans would have figured that out.