Unity Proves Elusive in Democrats’ Fight for $15

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If the Democrats have a problem, it’s with the working class. Their support from voters without college degrees (particularly white voters, but not exclusively) has been slipping in recent years.

The Republican Party, meanwhile, finds its own base more heavily tilted than ever before toward the white working class. These voters remain devoted to former President Donald Trump but don’t have much nostalgia for the pro-corporate version of the G.O.P. that predated him and that many Republican leaders are now wishing they could return to.

Many Democrats are now eager to seize upon the opportunity, demonstrating to voters that they haven’t become the party of elites and urbanites only.

So when legislators on the party’s left flank pushed to make a $15 minimum wage a top priority this year, Democratic leaders got on board, figuring it might signal the party’s commitment to working people. Senator Chuck Schumer, the Democratic leader, gave it his firm support, and President Biden included the proposal in his $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief proposal — along with the now-standard stimulus checks and unemployment extension.

“There should be a national minimum wage of $15 an hour,” Biden said last month as he prepared to enter the Oval Office. “Nobody working 40 hours a week should be living below the poverty line.”

Polling suggests that an increase to $15 an hour is popular: Sixty-one percent of Americans, in a Quinnipiac University poll released this month, said they supported it, including 63 percent of independents and a majority of voters across all major income groups.

But the Democratic Party is still not totally unified — and in an evenly divided Senate, the Democrats need total unity. Two centrist lawmakers, Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, have indicated that they aren’t ready to support an increase to $15 an hour, calling it too steep.

“At the end of the day, we do still struggle with the fact that our 50th vote represents a state that went for Trump by something like 40 points,” Sean McElwee, a founder of Data for Progress, a strategy firm that advises top Democrats in Congress, said of Manchin.

So when the Senate’s parliamentarian ruled yesterday that a $15 increase did not belong in a bill passed through the budgetary reconciliation process — a decision meaning that it would require at least 60 votes to pass and would therefore be dead on arrival in the Senate — the White House was reported to have breathed a quiet sigh of relief. The Covid-19 relief bill is now set to move ahead without a blanket minimum-wage increase. (Democrats are exploring other partial solutions, including tax incentives for corporations to get them to raise their own wage floors to $15.)

But without a blanket wage increase, observers in and around the Democratic Party say, this issue is not likely to go away. It remains a top priority both for progressives and for Democratic leaders like Schumer and Biden, both of whom objected — at least publicly — to the parliamentarian’s announcement.

“The minimum wage is very popular,” McElwee said. “I do think that if I was Joe Biden, I would like to be able to run for re-election on the fact that the average worker is making much more because I was president than they were before.”

McElwee pointed to the fact that in various swing states, minimum-wage ballot referendums tend to be popular — far more so, in fact, than Democratic candidates on the same ballots. In Sinema’s home state of Arizona, in 2016, voters increased the state minimum wage to $12 an hour by a 58 percent majority, even as the state supported Trump over Hillary Clinton. In 2020, Florida voted even more resoundingly to raise its state minimum wage to $15, with 61 percent supporting it.

“What we saw in Florida is that a $15 minimum wage is over 10 points more popular than Democratic electeds,” McElwee said. “It’s an open-and-shut case.”

The strategist Simon Rosenberg — whose moderate-leaning New Democrat Network often finds itself at odds with Data for Progress’s vision for the Democratic Party — said that he saw a minimum-wage increase as a winning issue with voters including those toward the center. Rosenberg called Republican lawmakers’ seemingly unanimous opposition to it a political “mistake.” But he also noted that Republican-led messaging campaigns have been building opposition to the idea of minimum-wage increases for decades.

“The investment of right-wing business interests in demonizing the minimum wage has been one of the most consistent projects of the right in the last generation,” Rosenberg said, referring to major donors such as Charles Koch. “It’s a touchstone issue.”

The Quinnipiac poll this month found that despite its broad popularity, a $15 minimum wage remained deeply unpopular with Republicans, who opposed it by a 2-to-1 ratio. White people without college degrees, Trump’s base, were more evenly split: 47 percent in favor, 51 percent opposed.

Manchin’s state is trending away from him politically; it had never voted Republican for president by as wide a margin as it did in 2016 and 2020. So he cannot afford to ignore the effects that the anti-wage-increase messaging campaign has had on core Republican voters.

Rosenberg said that if Democrats were able to burnish their brand by passing other major legislation aimed at workers and families, it could bode well for a minimum-wage increase — even in West Virginia. “I think Joe Manchin wants to be with the Democrats as much as he possibly can, and in order to do that, in his mind, he has to oppose them on certain things,” he said. “If in six months the Covid package is popular and the economy is coming back, Manchin’s going to have much more running room.”

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