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Policy: Budgets & Deficits

Campaign to raise minimum wage could backfire against Democrats

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Opinion,Op-Eds,Barack Obama,Obamacare,Budgets and Deficits,Minimum Wage

Despite his objections, 2013 was clearly President Obama's worst year serving in the Oval Office.

While Democrats came out as the weary victors in last fall's battle royale over the budget, their triumph was almost immediately overshadowed by the disastrous rollout of the Affordable Care Act and followed by wave after relentless wave of negative media cycles.

Despite an intensive three-week public relations blitz -- which really only prolonged the carnage -- Obama has been unable to pull the law out of its tailspin, and the uncertainty surrounding his signature piece of legislation has created a toxic election-year climate for his Democratic Party.

With the Senate hanging in the balance and several red-state Democrats facing tough re-election races, the liberal establishment has had to create another issue -- one that polls well -- to distract voters from the health care disaster and give these vulnerable Democrats an issue to campaign on.

Enter the campaign to raise the minimum wage. With few legislative achievements to tout, Democrats -- coordinating closely with labor unions and allied advocacy groups -- are doggedly trying to manufacture a favorable issue for candidates to run on this November.

The minimum wage has always been a tantalizing issue for Democrats, as it condenses into excellent soundbites and always polls well in a vacuum. Gallup consistently finds that the vast majority of Americans are willing to support a minimum wage increase, with a recent poll showing 76 percent in support of a hike from the present $7.25 to $9.

But despite the favorable poll numbers behind the wedge-issue campaign, its undoing might grow out of its inherent strength. The campaign has ballooned too large, too quickly and the liberal groups behind it have been only too eager to tip their hand and tout their strategy. What could have been a David-and-Goliath narrative is poised to morph into another act of political theater.

The problem with fabricating an election-year wedge issue is that it's only effective if it has two opposing parties. Republicans up for election seem to be learning from the results of the RNC's Growth and Opportunity Project, the self-reflecting report commissioned by the committee after the 2012 elections. While conservatives are very much divided on the minimum wage debate overall, Republicans can effectively defuse Democrats' efforts to salvage 2014 by making alleviating poverty a priority of their own.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., for example, launched a scathing criticism of LBJ's now 50-year-old “War on Poverty,” and Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., has promoted poverty alleviation through conservative economic policy. The GOP need not abandon Obamacare as the central tenet of it election-year rhetoric, but by showing that it cares about economic inequality, and by bringing solutions other than minimum wage hikes to the table, it can neutralize much of their opposition's strategy.

Should both parties increase their focus on poverty and inequality, by Election Day, the differences between policies will begin to seem negligible and the intricacies of each approach will likely become lost in campaign talking points.

With the bungled rollout of the president’s health care law, voters aren’t likely to overlook the elephant in the room. At best, the drive to raise the minimum wage might increase voter turnout in a non-presidential election year. At worst, it will be an expensive and embarrassing flop for Democrats and liberal advocacy groups that will cost them dearly in the House and Senate.

However, whether Democrats win or lose this fall, the strategy has a silver lining for labor unions. Although the average private-sector union worker earns more than three times the current minimum wage, many labor contracts contain triggers that automatically increase union salaries every time the minimum wage is hiked. Hence, regardless of the political results, minimum wage hikes are a win-win for labor, increasing wages for members while making it more difficult for employers to bring on inexpensive, low-wage, non-union workers.

Whether there’s ever an economically favorable time to raise the minimum wage is a point of political debate, but thanks to the healthcare law, the end of 2014 may be the worst climate imaginable for small business owners and employees on their payrolls. Democrats need to hope that Americans don’t do the math this fall, because if they do, it could add up to another crushing midterm defeat.

Michael Moroney is a communications professional in Washington. Thinking of submitting an op-ed to the Washington Examiner? Be sure to read our guidelines on submissions for editorials, available at this link.
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