So far, Democrats have made 2014 — all two weeks of it — all about income inequality, pushing policies to close the gap between the nation’s wealthy and poor. A proposal to raise the federal minimum wage and a bill to extend federal unemployment benefits have dominated headlines.
But from a political standpoint, does it matter whether Democrats can get their policies passed?
Some strategists say it doesn’t, arguing that pushing these proposals against Republican resistance will be more effective in November’s midterm elections than policy victories.
“In some ways, the failure to get these things done, I think, makes these issues as clear and sharp a distinction between the two parties as if they get through,” said Democratic pollster Guy Molyneux.
Republicans have argued that a minimum-wage hike would do more harm than good, making companies less likely to provide the jobs Americans sorely need. “The minimum wage makes it more expensive for employers to hire low-skilled workers,” said Rep. Paul Ryan, in remarks prepared for a speech at the Brookings Institution on Monday.
Democrats, on the other hand, have emphasized the unfairness of a minimum wage whose purchasing power peaked in the 1960s, and are pushing a proposal to raise the federal minimum to $10.10 an hour from its current level of $7.25.
“If somebody worked full-time, year-round and makes the minimum wage “¦ they’re still raising a family below the poverty line,” Jason Furman, chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, said Tuesday.
The public, for now, has largely sided with the Democrats’ point of view.
A poll released by Quinnipiac University last week indicated that 71 percent of American voters support raising the minimum wage, compared with 27 percent who oppose it. A December NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showed similar enthusiasm for higher wages, with 63 percent of Americans supporting an increase to $10.10.
Unemployment insurance is slightly more divisive. The same Quinnipiac poll indicated that 58 percent support an extension of jobless benefits for three months, compared to 37 percent who would oppose such a move.
This is why political analysts see little downside for Democrats who have pledged to put these issues front and center, even if they stall in Congress — and stall they might.
On Tuesday, legislative efforts to extend jobless benefits were blocked in the Senate and negotiations stalled, while Congress-watchers see little chance for the minimum wage to move through.
“I just don’t see it making it through the House,” said Greg Valliere, chief political strategist for the Potomac Research Group.
It’s too soon to determine the extent to which these individual issues will shape election results, even if Democrats retain the public’s support on unemployment insurance and the minimum wage. The latter “is an issue that the Democrats are counting on to take everybody’s focus off of Obamacare’s problems,” Republican pollster Glen Bolger said. According to a Gallup poll released Friday, 54 percent of Americans disapprove of the Affordable Care Act, compared with 38 percent who approve of the 2010 health reform law.
“I think a lot of Republicans would say the public antipathy toward Obamacare is a much bigger factor in the election than the minimum wage,” Valliere said.
Other political analysts caution against putting too much stock in either issue being decisive. Christopher Wlezien, a government professor at the University of Texas, said the state of the economy (shaken by a weaker-than-expected December jobs report), foreign policy, and any major scandals that affect the president’s approval rating tend to be more important than individual policy positions.
“In order to get a single issue to have a big influence on an election, it has to be one that is really salient to lots of voters and on which the parties are really, really split “¦ and where the public is really one-sided, and that’s a hard trio to have,” Wlezien said.
Republicans in recent weeks have been working to close that divide by offering their own proposals to deal with the country’s income disparity. Sen. Marco Rubio has proposed that the federal government create a single agency that would funnel its antipoverty money to states.
“Raising the minimum wage may poll well,” Rubio said in a speech last week, “but having a job that pays $10 an hour is not the American Dream.”