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.”