The Democrats have made their midterm agenda clear: passing a minimum-wage hike, fighting the menace of the Koch brothers, and expressing loud concern about climate change without actually bringing a cap-and-trade bill to the Senate floor.
Minimum-Wage Hike: The arguments about the merits and consequences of raising the minimum wage have been hashed out elsewhere. For now, let’s focus upon how many workers would be affected by this: The Congressional Budget Office estimated that raising the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour would eliminate 500,000 jobs (with the range extending from very few to 1 million), and about 16 million low-wage workers would see higher earnings. The increased earnings would amount to $31 billion.
For perspective, the United States has a labor force of 156 million people, with 145 million currently employed. So the increased minimum wage would be good news for about 11 percent of U.S. workers.
Why are Reid and other Democrats focusing so relentlessly on the Koch brothers? In a mid-March poll, 52 percent of likely voters said they had never heard of the Kochs, 12 percent had a positive impression of them, and 25 percent had a negative impression of them. The Democratic turnout efforts may require a villain or bogeyman, or the Democrats may be beating the drums on the demonization campaign to intimidate other potential GOP donors. Give enough money to Republicans, and Democrats will stand up on the floor of the Senate to talk about how terrible you are, day after day.
Either way, it is hard to believe that a broad swath of the public shares Democrats’ intense desire to contain the Koch menace. In the summary of a poll on campaign financing, Gallup wrote: “Over the years, Gallup has consistently found Americans dissatisfied with the way campaigns are financed, but not especially eager for Congress to make addressing it a high priority.” Typically, Democrats never explain why the donations and actions of their own politically active billionaire supporters, like Tom Steyer, aren’t harmful to democracy.
Climate Change: In early March, 28 Senate Democrats stayed up all night to speak on their chamber’s floor to demand legislative action on climate change — a strange demand, considering that Majority Leader Reid can bring such a measure to the floor any time he wants. The problem for Reid and the others is that quite a few other Democrats don’t support it, including just about every vulnerable incumbent up for reelection this year.
Beyond that, this is an issue that most Americans don’t consider a priority right now. “At this point, Americans simply are not very worried about either the environment or climate change,” concludes Frank Newport of the Gallup Organization. Given a list of 15 issues to prioritize, Gallup respondents placed the environment as 13th and climate change as 14th, just above race relations, at 15th.
Thus, Democrats head into the midterm elections promising to solve problems that aren’t priorities to the public and are, arguably, not really problems at all. The real problem for minimum-wage earners isn’t that their wages are too low but that there are too few opportunities to move on to better-paying jobs. The Koch Brothers are using their wealth to promote ideas and philosophies that they believe will work for everyone, the same as, say, Steyer, who is using his fortune for climate-change activism.
Finally, those who subscribe to the theory that human activity is the primary driver of climate change should acknowledge that no U.S. law can do much to mitigate the process, much less reverse it. Data released by the Environmental Protection Agency in 2011 indicated that even if the United States and the entire Western Hemisphere immediately ceased to exist, , the growth in Chinese carbon-dioxide emissions alone would likely render this action moot within a decade.
Ask voters what their top priority is, and the most frequent answer is “the economy,” although that’s a catch-all term for a wide variety of concerns and sub-issues. That March Gallup poll found 59 percent personally worry about “the economy” a great deal; 58 percent said they worry about “federal spending and the deficit,” 57 percent “the availability and affordability of health care,” 49 percent “unemployment,” and 48 percent “the size and power of the federal government.”
Rarely will you find a political environment as golden for a Republican policy agenda as this one.
To be sure, there’s reason for Republicans to worry that the concern about “federal spending and the deficit” is a mile wide and an inch deep; previous polls indicated the public opposes spending cuts in just about every part of the federal government except foreign aid. (Foreign aid represents about 1 percent of federal spending.) But if the public is interested in cutting only the lowest of the low-hanging fruit, grab a pair of scissors and start cutting. There’s no shortage of examples of dumb federal spending, and the GOP House can pass bill after bill zeroing out funding for these programs:
• The National Endowment for the Humanities can take a cut after spending $1 million to fund the “Popular Romance Project” exploring “the fascinating, often contradictory origins and influences of popular romance as told in novels, films, comics, advice books, songs, and internet fan fiction, taking a global perspective — while looking back across time as far as the ancient Greeks.” Separately, the NEH and the National Endowment for the Arts teamed up to award $825,000 for a documentary about comic books.
• Push a bill to eliminate funding for the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Nevada, too, just because Harry Reid will eagerly defend that from the floor of the Senate.
• Rescind the Pentagon’s decision to destroy, shred, and scrap $7 billion in excess equipment in Afghanistan.
• Once that equipment comes home, stop giving it to local law enforcement: “At a cost of $500,000 each, U.S. taxpayers gifted $82.5 million in surplus Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) tactical vehicles to law enforcement agencies in 165 communities.”
• The government spends approximately $1.5 billion per year on maintenance of properties and buildings it no longer uses.
You can even stop losing $1 million per year printing and attempting to sell government reports that are posted online for free, including a government report on . . . examples of wasteful spending.
Democrats will insist that the current economic pessimism stems from their usual villains — big corporations, rich people, the Koch brothers, and so on. Republicans will have a solid, easy message: that the government has borrowed and spent at unprecedented rates in recent years, only to see our economy sputter along. They can point to the dramatic difference in the rates of job creation in comparable red states and blue states.
If Republicans really want to promote higher wages, perhaps it’s just a matter of talking up the successful companies, particularly low-cost retailers, that have gotten great results from paying higher wages and benefits to workers. QuikTrip, Trader Joe’s, and Costco Wholesale boast they’re getting better sales and more satisfied customers with a workforce that is well paid compared to competitors. Retail sales require people skills, and perhaps those skills aren’t as easily replaced as some companies thought. Changing a company’s philosophy toward wages will have far more far-reaching consequences than a minimum-wage hike.
Of course, the bread and butter for Republican candidates in 2014 will be rescuing the American people from the lost coverage, higher premiums, higher copays, higher deductibles, and mandated choices of Obamacare. The president’s health-care law has never polled well, and there’s no indication it will be popular by November. A new round of premium hikes is expected in the coming year.
In his first term, President Obama was fond of claiming that Republicans had driven the economy into the ditch. This year, GOP candidates will have an easy argument that the economy is still in the ditch, and our health-care system is now stuck in the mud down there, too.
— Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot on NRO. He is the author of The Weed Agency, due out in June from Crown Forum.