Opinion

This is how the GOP should respond to Hillary Clinton's trumpeting of a minimum wage hike

Instead of blasting her as a leftist Obamacrat, maybe Republicans ought to rethink their own economic message

Kudos to Hillary Clinton for this clever bit of political jujitsu: At a rally last week for Massachusetts gubernatorial candidate Martha Coakley, the presumed 2016 Democratic favorite said it was a higher minimum wage, not private enterprise, that really creates American jobs.

Don't let anybody tell you that raising the minimum wage will kill jobs. They always say that. I've been through this. My husband gave working families a raise in the 1990s. I voted to raise the minimum wage and guess what? Millions of jobs were created or paid better and more families were more secure. … And don't let anybody tell you that, you know, it's corporations and businesses that create jobs. You know, that old theory, trickle-down economics. That has been tried. That has failed. It has failed rather spectacularly. [Hillary Clinton]

Predictably, Republicans freaked out en masse, from Fox News to the conservative blogosphere. The consensus opinion: Clinton finally revealed her true leftist colors, not to mention her profound economic ignorance. Forget all her talk about hubby Bill's third-way centrism. Hillary Clinton clearly isn't a Clinton Democrat ready to drag her party back to the center. She's just another wealth-redistributing Obamacrat.

Clinton has since clarified her remarks to acknowledge that businesses and "empowered" families have a key role to play in a healthy U.S. economy. But it makes little political difference. Recall that President Obama also clarified his "You didn't build that" gaffe during the 2012 election season. The GOP still flogged the original remark to death, especially during the Republican National Convention, with both Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan making reference to Obama's line long after its expiration date.

So why am I suggesting that any of this might be good for Clinton? Because if she is the Democratic nominee, as we all assume she will be, her GOP opponents will surely be tempted to repeatedly cite her words as proof of fuzzy, liberal thinking on economic policy. And she might kind of like that, actually.

Indeed, maybe the whole point of the original comment was to goad Republicans into attacking her. Think about it. What did Romney and Ryan get for all their focus on society's builders and makers? Well, the ticket lost 81-18 to Obama-Biden among voters seeking a president who "cares about people like me." Most American aren't CEOs or running tech startups. And most saw little in Romney-nomics that would directly benefit them or address their worries about stagnant take-home pay or financing college.

A 2016 GOP campaign centered around "heroic entrepreneurs" rather than everyday middle-class concerns would probably fail badly again today. Voters care about economic growth, but they also think redistributionist policies — like raising the minimum wage and guaranteeing a minimum income — are better for economic growth than business tax cuts or reducing high-end personal tax rates. Attacking Clinton for trumpeting a minimum wage hike would probably backfire on the GOP — at least if all the party has is criticism.

So how should Republicans react? Surely not by rabidly attacking Clinton — but also not by reflexively mimicking the Democratic agenda. Instead, there is an opportunity for a positive, conservative reform message.

As far as the minimum wage goes, its impact on jobs is hardly settled science, despite Clinton's claim. A study out this week finds "the best evidence still points to job loss from minimum wages for very low-skilled workers — in particular, for teens." The U.S. economy generated 41 million private-sector jobs from 1980 through 2007 even as the minimum wage declinedby nearly a third in real terms. Clinton may have actually reversed the linkage between jobs and the minimum wage.

Expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit or some other wage subsidy would better target low-income workers while also less likely to cost jobs. Such a plan could be a key element of a new GOP middle-class agenda, along with tax breaks for parents, making college more affordable, and, yes, business tax cuts, since research suggests such reforms would raise worker wages.

If a renewed effort to support the beleaguered American middle class is how the GOP responds to Hillary, then her clever trolling may turn out to be too clever by half.

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