Though many of the candidates onstage in Milwaukee in Tuesday’s Fox Business Network Republican debate used parts of their closing statements to highlight how they would be best positioned to take on the Democrats’ presumed nominee, Hillary Clinton, viewers needed to make it only through the first 15 minutes of the more-than-two-hour debate to spot an issue that could become central to the general election next fall.
Fox’s Neil Cavuto, one of the night’s three moderators, led off the debate by turning to Donald Trump, positioned center stage as the leader in recent national polls, and asked if the billionaire businessman was supportive of those calling for a $15-an-hour minimum wage.
“I can't be, Neil,” said Trump, who, after mentioning his “tremendous” tax plan, added, “wages are too high.”
Cavuto confirmed with the candidate that he would not raise the minimum wage — “I would not do it,” said Trump — and the partisan audience burst into applause.
The moderator then turned his attention to Ben Carson, the retired neurosurgeon who has challenged Trump for the top spot in recent surveys. Referring to demonstrations nationwide earlier that day by those seeking a hike in the hourly wage, Cavuto asked, “Those protesters outside are looking for $15 and nothing less. Where are you?”
Carson said people needed to be “educated” on the minimum wage. “Every time we raise the minimum wage,” he continued, “the number of jobless people increases.”
“Actually,” noted a post-debate fact check by The Associated Press, “that usually doesn’t happen.”
The AP explained that when “the minimum wage was increased in 1996 and 1997, the unemployment rate fell afterward.” After a wage hike in 2007, the unemployment rate remained unchanged for six months, increasing only after the start of the Great Recession.
If you go back to the late 1970s, as PolitiFact did after Tuesday’s debate, four of the five times an increase in minimum wage was followed by job losses came during recessions, when higher unemployment is part of the general economic picture. And that fifth time came only months after the end of the 1990 downturn.
PolitiFact characterized Carson’s claim as false.
But Trump and Carson were not alone in their opposition to the fight for $15.
“If you raise the minimum wage, you are going to make people more expensive than machines,” said Florida Sen. Marco Rubio when his turn came to address the subject. Rubio, who has been gaining ground in some recent opinion polls, called the minimum wage “in the 20th century” a “disaster.”
He was not asked if he instead supported paying people less than machines. But what Trump, Carson, Rubio and many of the other candidates in the main debate made abundantly clear is that they stand in a very different place from the Democrats seeking the presidency.
“Fast-food, home care, child care workers: Your advocacy is changing our country for the better. #Fightfor15,” tweeted Clinton in support of Fight for 15 demonstrations held at fast-food restaurants in hundreds of U.S. cities Tuesday.
She has not endorsed a $15 federal wage floor, saying that such a big increase was not “politically viable” and would not necessarily be appropriate for some poorer parts of the country. She has instead voiced support for a Democratic proposal in Congress to gradually raise the federal minimum wage to $12 an hour from its current $7.25.
Her main rival, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, has been more direct about support for a $15 minimum. “It is a national disgrace that millions of full-time workers are living in poverty,” he said in July, when he introduced a $15 living-wage bill in the Senate. “In the year 2015, a job must lift workers out of poverty, not keep them in it.”
On Tuesday he took time out from his preparations for Saturday’s Democratic presidential debate to join federal workers in Washington, D.C., demonstrating for a $15 minimum wage. “My debate prep today is to stand with workers who are trying to get a living wage from a contractor with the United States government,” he told CNN. “That’s the kind of debate prep that inspires me.”
It was a stark contrast to the scene in Milwaukee later in the day — and one that has some GOP strategists concerned. Steve Schmidt, a senior adviser to Arizona Sen. John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign, took to MSNBC after the Republican debate to bemoan the candidates’ ringing rejection of increasing the minimum wage. And Schmidt may have a point.
In 2014, a midterm election year that saw the GOP dominate in almost every region of the country, state minimum wage hikes were on the ballot in four states, all considered staunchly Republican. And in all those states — Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska and South Dakota — the wage increases passed easily.
And, contrary to Carson’s theories, the jobs outlook in those states should be fine. “Economic research,” according to the AP fact check, “has found that when states raise their minimum wages higher than neighboring states, they don’t typically fare any worse than their neighbors.”
It is a point that further underscores the dangerous ground Republicans sought to claim in the Milwaukee debate. The federal minimum is truly a minimum, with many states setting their base wage well above the federal floor. Those states and the national economy can sustain and have often flourished with higher minimum wages. Fighting the federal standard may garner cheers at the debates, but the cost to candidates in the general election could far outweigh any possible economic benefit.
New York Times contributor Josh Barro sounded a warning Tuesday, even before the prime-time candidates took the stage. “That is not a good fight to fight,” he said on MSNBC, “even if you think the minimum wage is bad policy.”
In an election that has already put a spotlight on the disparity between rich and poor — especially in Democratic circles — the federal minimum wage stands as an easy-to-grasp symbol of a bigger economic fight. Raising it, cutting it or abandoning it may or may not do much to alter relative wealth or jobless rates in the short term, but running against it risks alienating important working-class voters this election cycle.