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David Hill: Wage hike challenges GOP

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I have been harping for some time in this space that opinion leaders, and even some pollsters, have been underplaying pocketbook issues like jobs, the economy, healthcare costs and so forth for too long. It’s evident that some others are finally grasping the political opportunities presented by this sorry economy that seems unrelentingly cruel. Unfortunately, it’s leading Democrats who are finally “getting it,” and their suggestion that the minimum wage be raised is finding strong support in polling. 

Republicans need to find some economic stimulus ideas of their own in order to get on offense or find some clever way to play defense against Democratic initiatives like a higher minimum wage.

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In my experience, it’s going to be a tall order to get the GOP to rally against a higher minimum wage. Republicans are so sure that this is a terrible, job-killing idea that most won’t spend much time contemplating arguments against paying everyone $10 or more per hour. But we should. 

Polls so far this year by CBS and Pew (for USA Today) show that the public strongly backs raising the minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10. CBS shows 72 percent in favor and only 26 percent opposed. Pew’s results are very close, with 73 percent in favor and 25 percent opposed. 

The most intriguing polling outcome on this topic is gleaned from the CBS survey, which finds that just 41 percent of American adults believe that raising the minimum wage to $10.10 would reduce the number of jobs in the United States. A clear majority — 54 percent — refutes that notion, outright rejecting the central Republican justification for simply dismissing a higher minimum wage. 

We Republicans have a number of teaching moments ahead of us if we are going to turn public opinion around on this issue.

 I can just imagine the glee of some Democratic pollsters and their clients when they rediscovered this issue during the last year. Americans agree with Democrats on practically nothing. Majorities of Americans disapprove of President Obama’s job performance generally. Stronger majorities disapprove of his handling of the economy, the budget deficit, and healthcare, the issues that matter most. 

But 7 in 10 Americans agree with Democrats’ intentions to raise the minimum wage by close to $3 an hour. No wonder Democrats are going to be pushing the wage agenda, because it is a perfect way to address the huge issue of underemployment, a much bigger fish these days than unemployment.

 The issue works for Democrats, too, in that it will likely create fissures in the GOP. I can remember this issue coming up briefly on my watch in the 1980s and 1990s. Some of my Republican clients in Midwestern industrial states seemed open to the idea, a few even enthusiastic, although for more modest increases than are now being proffered. 

As a barefoot Southerner who was raised to oppose such government meddling in labor matters, I was taken aback. But I quickly learned that not every Republican shares that view about the lowest legal wage. The same Republican that goes bonkers about OSHA rules or other employer mandates takes a more populist stance toward modest increases in wages for the poorest workers.

The huge increase being sought by Democrats is likely to provide an opening for centrist Republicans who would support a more modest increase in the federal minimum wage, something somewhere in the middle, between $7.25 and $10.10. That would be safe, as many states already have a state minimum in that range. Republicans might also score points by indexing the minimum wage instead of arbitrarily setting a single number for every state. 

But simply saying “NO” to any change in the minimum wage is not likely to help the party regain control of Congress or the White House.

Hill is a pollster who has worked for Republican campaigns and causes since 1984.