Sometimes it’s a close question as to whether the leaders of the House are more arrogant or more stupid. The combination of the two is deadly.
The arrogance stems from a deep-seated conviction that state-by-state gerrymandering has made it impossible for the Republican Party to lose the majority in the House. The stupidity is demonstrated by their refusal to take the two steps that could give their beleaguered members some kind of political cover as they run for reelection: lobbying reform and a minimum-wage increase.
But the arrogance is misplaced. The Republicans can, indeed, lose the House.
In the 2004 election, GOP congressional candidates polled three percentage points more than their Democratic opponents, but current polling suggests that the Democratic margin, this time, will be between eight and 12 points higher. If those numbers hold up — and Bush’s low favorability virtually assures that they will — there is every reason to believe that the Republicans could lose control. Remember that there are seven GOP retirements in the House from marginal seats and that 16 incumbent Republicans were elected in 2004 with less than 55 percent of the vote.
In the Senate, the five endangered Republicans — Mike DeWine (Ohio), Jim Talent (Mo.), Rick Santorum (Pa.), Conrad Burns (Mont.) and Lincoln Chaffee (R.I.) — may go down as Bush’s popularity hovers in the mid-30s. And relief is not likely as Democrats will probably win New Jersey and Washington state, blue states that they are. It may all come down to Tennessee in the Senate.
Given their slender electoral chances, the failure of the House and Senate to pass significant lobbying reform can only be explained by a colossal arrogance and a total, druglike dependence on lobbyist favors. But the minimum-wage bill?
Nothing could so permit Republican candidates to cut the ground out from under their Democratic opponents than to pass this seminal piece of liberal legislation. Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) did more to rescue the post-government-shutdown Republicans in 1996 when he let the last increase go through. The bill to raise the wage by $2.10 over three years gives Republicans a solid accomplishment, demonstrating their concern for the working poor.
By defeating the increase — and even more by tying it to further estate-tax relief — the Republicans give their Democratic opponents talking points with which to beat them over the head. No American will fail to see the heartlessness in denying hardworking people a wage of $7, nor will they fail to understand the priorities of a party that will only grant this pittance to the poor if they can raise the estate-tax exemption to $5 million!
What are they thinking in the House? A Democratic campaign strategist couldn’t dream up a better linkage than that between the minimum wage and the estate-tax reduction. That the GOP is putting its own neck in that particular noose is a gift to the Democrats that they don’t deserve.
In 1997, when the last minimum-wage increase took effect, we saw how specious was the GOP argument that a higher wage would deter employment, particularly of students. Unemployment dropped, unaffected by the wage increase.
Many issues are tough to analyze and are too complex for the average voter, but the priority we should accord those making $5 an hour over those who stand to inherit $5 million is so clear that it can fit on a bumper sticker.
Republicans are trying to win the 2006 election the same way they won the 2004 election — by revivifying their base. But in 2004, Bush had approval regularly measured at over 50 percent, and usually over 60 percent. The threat of terrorism hung over the election like the shadow of the fallen World Trade Center.
Now they are trying to turn on their core voters with issues like gay marriage and flag burning. It won’t work.
The Republicans have got to aim their pitch for swing voters, and there is no better way of doing that than raising the minimum wage — and discarding the linkage to estate-tax relief.