Democrats Don’t Need Policy Wins to Score Politically

WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 11: Chairman of the House Budget Committee Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI.) offers remarks while joined by others form the GOP leadership, during a media availability following a Republican Conference meeting at the U.S. Capitol, December 11, 2013, in Washington, DC. House Speaker John Boehner responded to conservative groups opposing the newly announced bipartisan budget deal, saying 'They're using our members and they're using the American people for their own goals. This is ridiculous.' 
National Journal
Catherine Hollander
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Catherine Hollander
Jan. 14, 2014, 5:13 p.m.

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.”

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