The Republican Party is in chaos. Defeated former President Donald Trump remains the dominant figure in the party he remade in his own image, despite the fact that polls show 68 percent of Americans don’t want him to remain a major figure in American politics. Worse yet, Trump is threatening to use his popularity with the GOP base to punish Republican members of Congress and state officials who refuse to go along with his Big Lie claims about the 2020 election. So, all in all, these should be the best of times for Democrats.
Yet, even as President Biden and his congressional allies secured passage of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Act last week, they couldn’t deliver on the party’s historic promise to guarantee a living wage for working Americans. Why? Because eight members of the Senate Democratic Caucus sided with Republicans in opposition to an amendment by Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders to raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 an hour—the below-the-poverty-line figure at which it has been stuck since 2009—to $15 an hour.
The Sanders proposal wasn’t radical. It was what Democrats ran and won on in 2020, and what Biden proposed in his initial rendering of the stimulus package. But seven Democrats—West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema, Montana’s Jon Tester, New Hampshire’s Jeanne Shaheen, New Hampshire’s Maggie Hassan, Delaware’s Chris Coons, and Delaware’s Tom Carper—voted with the Republicans to block the Sanders amendment. So, too, did an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, Maine Senator Angus King.
Several of the rebels also moved to peg the weekly unemployment benefit at $300 a week, rather than the $400 a week Biden had proposed. They were also among the advocates for strict means-testing direct payments of $1,400 to Americans, in a move that has denied direct payments to roughly 10 million Americans who got checks under earlier stimulus plans and reduced the amount that goes to millions more.
Americans Want a Raise
As the compromises piled up, Representative Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-N.J.) observed, “This trend is outrageous.” Pointing to the moves to block the fight for $15, reduce benefits, and limit direct payments, she asked, “What are we doing here?” and added, “I’m frankly disgusted with some of my colleagues.”
“Raising the wage isn’t just good policy—it’s popular too!” Congressional Progressive Caucus chair Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) pointed out. “A $15 minimum wage is supported by 61 percent of voters. Why Senators are voting against giving their constituents a raise is beyond me.”
Manchin, Sinema, and the others offered plenty of excuses, none of which were credible—especially in the case of Sinema, who was once an ardent advocate of wage hikes. Backing an effort to raise the federal minimum wage in 2014, Sinema tweeted, “A full-time minimum-wage earner makes less than $16k a year. This one’s a no-brainer. Tell Congress to #RaiseTheWage!”
Grassroots Democrats, who have been fighting for $15 for the better part of a decade saw the hypocrisy and asked, “What are these senators thinking?”
The answer is that the Democratic opponents of a $15-an-hour federal minimum wage aren’t thinking about aiding their president or their party. They’re defaulting to the politics of compromise and concession that invariably costs congressional Democrats hard-earned majorities and leaves Democratic presidents without the ability to effectively govern. If they keep doing this, they will hand Republicans an undeserved opening in 2022.
Whether Manchin, Sinema, and the inequality caucus are motivated by thoughts of campaign donations from corporate interests, deficit-hawk fantasies, or lust for the attention the media invariably lavishes on “centrists,” they are making the mistake that Democrats regularly make at the start of a new administration. Even if last week’s reluctant senators represented only a minority in a party that overwhelmingly favors a wage hike and bold action, they created an image of the Democrats as a status-quo institution that is unprepared to deliver for working people.
Compromise Is a Loser’s Game
This a dangerous game, and Democrats always lose. It’s also a rejection of their party’s best legacy of fighting economic inequality.
President Franklin Roosevelt—whose New Deal administration established the federal minimum wage—was the last Democratic president to make a virtue of rejecting compromise. When he was condemned by Wall Street interests, FDR announced, “I welcome their hatred.” He discarded the cautious language of centrism, especially when he was talking about wages for workers. “In my Inaugural I laid down the simple proposition that nobody is going to starve in this country,” he explained in 1933. “It seems to me to be equally plain that no business which depends for existence on paying less than living wages to its workers has any right to continue in this country. By ‘business’ I mean the whole of commerce as well as the whole of industry; by workers I mean all workers, the white collar class as well as the men in overalls; and by living wages I mean more than a bare subsistence level—I mean the wages of decent living.”
That blunt language had immense political appeal. FDR defeated an incumbent Republican president in 1932 and was reelected—on progressively more liberal platforms—in 1936, 1940, and 1944. Democrats won the House and the Senate in the midterm elections of 1934, 1938, and 1942. Roosevelt’s best vice president, Henry Wallace, told the 1944 Democratic National Convention,
The future belongs to those who go down the line unswervingly for the liberal principles of both political democracy and economic democracy regardless of race, color or religion. In a political, educational and economic sense there must be no inferior races. The poll tax must go. Equal educational opportunities must come. The future must bring equal wages for equal work regardless of sex or race. Roosevelt stands for all this. That is why certain people hate him so. That also is one of the outstanding reasons why Roosevelt will be elected for a fourth time.
Wallace was right. Unfortunately, Democrats did not renominate the Roosevelt-Wallace ticket in 1944. They made a more cautious Democrat, Harry Truman, FDR’s running mate. After FDR died in April 1945, Truman moved the administration and the party in a centrist direction. In 1946, Democrats lost the House and the Senate.
A new pattern took hold.
Fighting for $15 Is Politically Necessary
After FDR, no Democratic president would win reelection until Bill Clinton in the 1990s. But Clinton governed cautiously, with too much deference to Wall Street and social conservatives. He lost his governing majorities in the House and Senate in 1994 and never got them back. Similarly, Barack Obama assumed the presidency with overwhelming Democratic majorities in both chambers of Congress but lost the House in 2010 and the Senate in 2014.
Democratic presidents get a brief opening to govern boldly at the beginning of their tenures. If they do not do so, either because of their own caution or because of the reluctance of congressional Democrats, those presidents lose their ability to act decisively. Roosevelt and the New Deal Democrats saw their opening and seized it. So, too, did the old New Dealer Lyndon Johnson, when he assumed the presidency after the assassination of President John Kennedy in 1963.
But, since Johnson, Democrats have too frequently erred on the side of caution. And they have been punished for it.
Now, Manchin, Sinema, and their allies have raised the prospect of similar punishment in 2022. Democrats, in the home states of the senators who have refused to fight for $15 and in Washington, have to push back against concessionary politics. Fighting for $15 and for a broader economic justice agenda is not just morally right and economically wise. It is politically necessary.