The Republican Party began with an embrace of the US Constitution’s promise to “promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty” for all—celebrating a vision, in the party’s 1856 platform, of making “ample provision” for the great mass of Americans.
Historically, responsible Republicans—and there used to be a lot of responsible Republicans—recognized that this ample provision must include support for a federal minimum wage that helps full-time workers enjoy at least a measure of economic security. One hundred years into the party’s history, at one of its greatest electoral high points, the Republican platform of 1956 highlighted the fact that under a Republican administration “the Federal minimum wage has been raised for more than 2 million workers.” In keeping with President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s counsel that “in all those things which deal with people, be liberal, be human,” the Grand Old Party pledged to “extend the protection of the Federal minimum wage laws to as many more workers as is possible and practicable.”
Even as the party veered right in Ronald Reagan’s 1980s, Republicans seemed to accept the wisdom and value of a minimum wage. The 1984 party platform griped some about “arbitrary minimum wage rates” that the drafters claimed made it harder for young people to enter the workforce in tight economic times. But the answer wasn’t to eliminate the minimum wage, the Republicans declared, simply “the adoption of a youth opportunity wage to encourage employers to hire and train inexperienced workers.”
While there was plenty of opposition to the notion of a two-tier minimum-wage requirement, there was broad agreement about keeping the minimum wage, and recognition of the need to raise it. By 1988, George H.W. Bush was running for president as a Republican and calling for a minimum-wage increase.
Almost 20 years later, the next President Bush signed the bill establishing the first federal minimum wage in a decade, setting up a three-stage process to raise the rate from $5.15 per hour to $7.25 per hour over two years. And notably, the party’s 2012 presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, says with regard to the minimum wage: “I part company with many of the conservatives in my party on the issue of the minimum wage. I think we ought to raise it.”
But that’s history.
A number of the top candidates for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination are critics not only of minimum-wage hikes but also of minimum-wage laws. Every indication is that the party is scrambling away from its historic—and, as Eisenhower suggested, “human”—values.
And no one is scrambling faster than Scott Walker.
If Walker is the nominee, the party platform will have to go beyond simply griping about “arbitrary minimum wage rates” or rejecting any notion of a living wage.
Walker began his run for the White House by explicitly and aggressively opposing the very idea of a minimum wage.
“The left claims that they’re for American workers and they’ve just got really lame ideas—things like the minimum wage,” Walker told Fox News after announcing his candidacy Monday. “Instead of focusing on that, we need to talk about how we get people the skills and the education and the qualifications that they need to take on the careers that pay far more than the minimum wage.”
The latter part of that statement is an old talking point from Walker—who has a long history of dancing around questions regarding whether to increase the minimum wage with “careers that pay far more” line. But Walker also has a long history of working to undermine unions, workers, and wages.
On the Sunday before his formal announcement, the governor signed a state budget that eliminated Wisconsin’s 100-year-old commitment to at least try to assure that the minimum wage is a living wage. That same budget undermined the state’s prevailing-wage protections for construction projects.
Still, as radical as Walker has been in his assaults on unions and their members, and on policies and programs designed to help workers obtain the education and training they need, he entered new territory with his claim that the minimum wage is a “lame idea” of the left.
That’s not what Americans think.
Polling suggests that Americans do not merely approve of the minimum wage; they want to increase it substantially. Proposals for hiking the minimum wage rarely earns less than 60 percent approval, and often grab much higher numbers. Democrats are most enthusiastic. Independents come next. But Republicans are strikingly supportive.
A Hart Research Associates survey released in January 2015 found that 75 percent of Americans surveyed support raising the federal minimum wage to $12.50 by 2020. Ninety-two percent of Democrats were for the increase, as were 73 percent of independents and 53 percent of Republicans
A 2013 Gallup survey—which featured specific questions about dollar amounts and strategies for increasing wages—and found that 76 percent of Americans would vote for raising the minimum wage to $9 an hour. And 69 percent would hike the wage and index future increases to keep up with inflation—effectively guaranteeing a far steadier pattern of improvement in pay.
Notably, most Republicans are still in sync with the Republican Party of the past—not with the party that Walker would create.
In the Gallup survey, 58 percent of Republicans favored taking the minimum wage to at least $9 an hour. And a substantial number of Republicans—43 percent—said they would vote for a higher minimum wage now and for indexing future increases to keep pace with inflation.