What Does the Minimum Wage Have to Do with GOP's Civil War?


The big political news out of Washington last week was the GOP's complete capitulation on the debt ceiling. LL pointed out here that the early surrender has sparked more infighting within the Republican party, which ABC News's Rick Klein confirmed on Sunday. Though House GOP's far right wing wasn't heard as loudly as Ted Cruz in the Senate thanks to the House being more of a dictatorship (of the Speaker) than the Senate, the Tea Party is just as incensed at the House GOP as they are at the Senate Republicans for allowing an up-or-down vote on a clean debt ceiling increase. Tea Party groups all over the country are pledging to make life difficult for Republican candidates who do not toe the line in an election year.

At that very same time, the president and Democrats have picked another fight with the GOP: raising the minimum wage. Also last week, the president signed an executive order forcing federal contractors to pay a minimum wage of $10.10 to their employees, just as House Democrats announced that they were beginning a long-shot discharge petition to get a vote on raising the minimum wage on the floor.

Sure, you say. But the Tea Party here is aligned with the elected GOP - against allowing Americans working full time to rise above poverty. But if that is what you're focused on, you're missing the connection. The push on the minimum wage isn't meant to separate the mainstream GOP from the Tea Party - it is meant to attach the two in the minds of the American people. If the GOP was hoping to put some distance between their electoral appeal and the nuttiness of the Tea Party, the push on the minimum wage will push them back together like glue.

Overall, raising the minimum wage is hugely popular - it is consistently supported by over 70% of American voters, but the number is almost exactly flipped when polling Tea Partiers - roughly 70% of Teabaggers oppose raising the minimum wage. More than 60% of non Tea-Party Republicans actually support raising the minimum wage. The numbers are similar on other economic justice issues: 70% of Tea Partiers want to leave the long-term unemployed high and dry while over 60% of American voters favor extending unemployment benefits. Less than half of all Republicans favor any government action to narrow the gap between the rich and the poor, while nearly 80% of all Americans prefer at least some government action. Over 80% of Tea Partiers believe government aid for the poor and unemployed makes people moochers, but nearly 90% of the American people believe in government aid and action to reduce poverty.

The big push to raise the minimum wage has two goals for the Democrats. First, the policy goal and the principle of ensuring that no one in America who works full time should have to live in poverty. Second, the political goal: to push the GOP into a corner, attached to the Tea Party and against the economic values of the American people. Barack Obama isn't stupid. He knows that the Republican House in all likelihood won't help him raise the minimum wage. But if they won't, he and the Democrats can force the Republicans to run as the party against the middle class. They can force the Republicans to run as the party against raising the minimum wage, against reducing poverty, against addressing economic inequality, and for taking away health care and health insurance consumer protections the American people already have.

And that is exactly what they are doing. The playbook is brilliant. Democrats know that when Republicans get to run against a caricature of a Democratic program (ACA), they win, but when they get to paint the GOP correctly as the party opposed to the interests and values of the broad middle class, we win. Republicans are already having to fight the Tea Party for their allegiance to the business lobby in raising the debt ceiling, and Democrats seem intent on reminding Americans that it's that Tea Party whose ultra heartless and extreme economic values still hold a lock on the Republican party.

In other words, Democrats are campaigning to connect the GOP to the Tea Party's values just as the Tea Party wages a war to force the GOP even farther to the Right. The president is trying to make the Republicans fight two simultaneous wars - one in the arena of general public opinion, which already sees them as too extreme, and other intraparty, where the Tea Party sees them as not extreme enough.

I'm liking this fight.