Today, the Democratic National Committee’s Organizing For America operation fired the first shots in the minimum wage fight, a national cable ad with the message “Congress: Give America a Raise.”
The ad amounts to a warning shot, not a silver bullet. It’s airing on national cable TV and therefore does not target individual congresspeople who are resisting the Harkin-Miller bill to raise the minimum to $10.10 an hour and then allow it to rise to keep pace with inflation.
But if the Democrats are rerunning their 1996 playbook, this is just the beginning of the air war.
As I wrote in the TheWeek.com last week, nearly every President since the minimum wage was established has signed into law an increase, even when a conservative Congress loathed a Democratic president – such as in 1949 and 1996.
In the election year of 1996, the Democratic strategy to overcome Republican stalling was simple: force Republicans to take procedural votes blocking action, then use those votes in ads targeting vulnerable congresspeople.
In the House, Speaker Newt Gingrich relented after five procedural votes. In the Senate, presumptive Republican presidential nominee and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole had been fighting it. But he resigned his Senate seat in order to focus on the presidential race. Shortly thereafter, Democrats threatened to tack minimum wage amendments on every piece of Senate business until Republicans gave in, and the new Majority Leader Trent Lott did just that a few weeks later.
Why did Republicans crack? As Dole himself lamented about the argument against an increase: “You can’t explain it.”
This is true time and time again throughout history. It’s just not tenable for Republican to go to the voters and explain why the minimum should be kept low.
So when Democrats ramp up the pressure on minimum wage, while also offering Republicans face-saving concessions, such as tax breaks, to appease business lobbies, Republicans fold. Every time.
What will be tougher in 2014 than in 1996 is not necessarily that the Republican Party is more conservative, but that newly agreed-upon bipartisan budget caps likely take more business tax breaks off the list of potential sweeteners.
But with the Senate expecting to vote in March, and the ad campaign already underway, the heat Republicans are about to face is only going to get hotter.