The first Republican president of the United States was a friend of labor and a champion of working people.
“Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital,” Abraham Lincoln told the Congress in 1861. “Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.”
When most of the Republicans who would be president gathered in Milwaukee Tuesday night to make their cases in a forum that Lincoln would not have recognized as a debate, they rejected the mantle of the radical founders of a party formed to fight the reactionaries who Lincoln warned would “place capital on an equal footing with, if not above, labor, in the structure of government.”
Despite the ideological apostasy of the 16th president’s political descendants, however, the Lincoln sensibility was on display in Milwaukee Tuesday night.
Outside the Milwaukee Theatre, where the fourth Republican “debate” was being managed by Rupert Murdoch’s minions from the Fox Business Network and The Wall Street Journal, crowds of actual working people marched for a $15-an-hour minimum wage and union rights. They came, as fast-food worker Tim Roach said, to highlight the fact that while Republican candidates, aides, and donors were dining at Milwaukee restaurants, “the people making that food are not making a livable wage.”
Behind the security barricades and police lines that separated the debaters from the residents of a city that in 2012 cast just 19 percent of its votes for the Republican ticket of Mitt Romney and Wisconsinite Paul Ryan, the Republican hopefuls spoke as elitists rather than populists.
They could not, however, completely ignore the demands of the working Milwaukeeans—and residents of other cities where thousands of fast-food workers struck Tuesday for a living wage.
The strikers forced the wage issue onto the agenda.
Moderator Neil Cavuto opened the debate by noting that “as we gather tonight—just outside, and across the country—picketers are gathering as well. They’re demanding an immediate hike in the minimum wage to $15 an hour. Just a few hours ago, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed doing the same for all state workers, the first governor to do so.”
Then he asked Trump, “As the leading presidential candidate on this stage and one whose tax plan exempts couples making up to $50,000 a year from paying any federal income taxes at all, are you sympathetic to the protesters’ cause, since a $15 wage works out to about $31,000 a year?”
“I can’t be, Neil,” responded Trump.
Entering into the irony-free zone where he is always most comfortable, one of the richest men in the world offered his sense of the challenge now facing the United States: high wages.
“[Taxes] too high, wages too high, we’re not going to be able to compete against the world,” griped Trump. “I hate to say it, but we have to leave [the $7.25-an-hour minimum wage] the way it is. People have to go out, they have to work really hard and have to get into that upper stratosphere. We can not do this if we are going to compete with the rest of the world. We just can’t do it.”
Just to be clear, Cavuto asked if Trump really was saying “do not raise the minimum wage.”
“I would not do it,” responded the billionaire.
It was the same with the other front-runner.
Dr. Ben Carson trotted out the favorite fantasy that raising wages leads to unemployment.
“Every time we raise the minimum wage, the number of jobless people increases,” Carson claimed.
“That isn’t true,” responded Politico’s fact-check site. “Multiple studies have observed instances in which the minimum wage rose and unemployment did not rise.”
Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who rarely shows up for his day job these days, had another argument for denying a wage hike to moms and dads who go to work every day and cannot get out of poverty.
“If I thought that raising the minimum wage was the best way to help people increase their pay, I would be all for it, but it isn’t,” claimed Rubio. “In the 21st century, it’s a disaster. If you raise the minimum wage, you’re going to make people more expensive than machines. That means all the automation that is replacing jobs and people right now will be accelerated.”
So, just to be clear, in the future as Marco Rubio sees it, wages must remain low in order to keep a check on automation.
Why? Because Rubio imagines a future in which the benefits of a technological revolution can only be enjoyed by CEOs, stockholders, and speculators. That’s the narrow and unthinking approach of the past that does not begin to recognize the options that are already available—and that will become even more available—to creative thinkers and innovative leaders. In a socially and economically responsible future, digital technologies and automation breakthroughs could allow the great mass of Americans to work fewer hours for greater pay. But that would require presidents and senators to respond to Main Street as opposed to Wall Street.
Unfortunately, as Rubio’s response to the minimum-wage question illustrated, the Republicans were not about to address the economy in humane or realistic ways because they were not about to think outside the Wall Street box. Ohio Governor John Kasich and former Florida governor Jeb Bush bowed a bit to common sense on issues such as immigration, and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul had some wise things to say about the cost of a military-industrial complex. Several of the contenders grumbled about the absolutely worst excesses of crony capitalism and too-big-to-fail banking.
Yet, for the most part, it was a night of billionaires, millionaires, and no-show senators refusing to even imagine that America might be a fair and functional nation where all citizens share in the promise of the future.
“The Republican candidates are going down the wrong path with all of these attacks they’re making on our community,” said Dolores Huerta, the civil-rights and labor leader who was a co-founder of the United Farm Workers union. Rallying in downtown Milwaukee with striking fast-food workers, immigrants-rights advocates, #BlackLivesMatter activists and climate-justice campaigners, Huerta complained that the GOP candidates were “against raising the minimum wage, against fighting climate change, even though families are struggling and global warming is going to affect every one of us.”
In reality, the Republicans were far more focused on speaking to billionaire campaign donors and right-wing pundits than on addressing the issues Huerta and the working folks outside the hall were raising.
The real debate was not on the stage. It was outside on the streets of Milwaukee and cities like it nationwide. While the Republican candidates avoided that debate, the Democratic contenders embraced it. Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton sent a Twitter message backing the strikers: “Fast-food, home care, child care workers: Your advocacy is changing our country for the better.” And Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who has introduced legislation to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, along with a proposal to strengthen union rights, joined the picket line in Washington.
“What you are doing and workers all over the United States are doing, you are having a profound impact,” Sanders told the crowd of striking workers on Capitol Hill. “People are raising the minimum wage to 15 bucks an hour. And you know who started it? You did. You started the movement.”
“Now we’ve got to finish the job,” he declared, echoing the call of that movement: “Fifteen bucks and a union!”