By Greg Sargent
As I reported here yesterday, Democrats are drawing up plans to run hard on Obama’s proposal to raise minimum wage in the 2014 Congressional elections. What few people remember is that there’s precedent for this: The minimum wage hike was one of the key issues Dems used to take back the House in 2006.
In an interview with me, Nancy Pelosi summed up the message Dems used against Republicans in 2006, and will again use in 2014: “Just keep it simple. We want to raise the minimum wage, and you don’t. Why not?”
In 2006, the minimum wage hike was one of the key planks in what Dems called the “Six for ’06 Agenda” — a set of initiatives focused on jobs and wages, national security, affordable health care, and energy independence. After Dems won back the House, the minimum wage hike was signed into law the next year. Pelosi tells me she would much prefer that Republicans agree to raise the minimum wage before it ever becomes a campaign issue, but if they don’t, Democrats will rerun the 2006 minimum wage playbook — and that if anything, it will be worse this time, because it encapsulates the argument the parties have been having in the years since the financial crisis heightened public awareness about inequality.
“There’s an even greater awareness now than there was six years ago about the disparity of income in our country — and that this disparity is not a healthy thing for a family or an economy,” Pelosi told me. “Raising the minimum wage is the right thing to do, but it’s a popular thing to do as well.”
The other day, John Boehner shot down Obama’s minimum wage proposal, arguing it would kill jobs for low wage workers. Asked to respond, Pelosi cited studies showing little correlation between the minimum wage and unemployment, and noted that the debate is a template for the larger argument over what kind of economy we want. Republicans believe higher wages hurt the economy — as Boehner put it, “when you raise the price of employment, guess what happens? You get less of it.”
Democrats disagree — they see higher wages at the bottom end as good for the economy and even the deficit. Pelosi noted that very low wage workers are a drag on the deficit because they are more reliant on government help — and that in effect, government is subsidizing employers who pay them so little.
“If people really want to address the deficit and reduce government spending, they should address the issue that some spending on the safety net is subsidizing minimal pay in this country,” Pelosi said. “When taxpayers are subsidizing low wages, people should be aware of that. We’re subsidizing an economy. We’re not subsidizing people. They are doing a hard day’s work. When we’re not rewarding work actively, there’s something wrong with the system.”
Pelosi also linked the minimum wage to Keynesian economics: “Our economy is best served by rewarding work, by having those workers be stronger consumers, providing for their families, spending money, and injecting demand into the economy. You cannot deny that putting money into the hands of working people at that level is the best way to grow the economy.”
Pelosi also questioned whether voters would believe Republicans are opposing the minimum wage hike for the good of low wage workers — after all, they opposed tax hikes on the rich on behalf of small businesses, and have held to this line even as the public has grown more convinced that GOP policies favor the rich.
“I don’t think they have any credibility in this regard — none,” she said. “There are certain things people believe about us — that we’re there for working families. There are certain things people believe about them — they’re there for the wealthy and special interests.”
Pelosi cautioned, however, that Dems had work to do in making the public aware of the GOP’s true position on the issue. “Who would suspect that somebody” — i.e., the GOP — “thinks $9.00 an hour would be an obstacle to economic success for our country? Who would believe that? We really have to make sure that all the people who would benefit from an increase in the minimum wage realize this is what’s going on.”
Democrats managed it before — and they’ll be trying very hard to do it again.