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Thursday, April 21, 2016

Did Clinton Flip-Flop On The Minimum Wage?

In the Brooklyn debate, Hillary Clinton was asked: "As president, if a Democratic Congress put a $15 minimum wage bill on your desk, would you sign it?" She said yes, and Bernie acted like it was a shock. She had said she supported a $12 federal minimum wage before, and now she is saying she would support a $15 minimum wage? What happened?

First, we need a clear understanding of Clinton's position before the Brooklyn debate.  Let's look at three key moments in 2015.

  1. In April, the "Fight for $15" made headlines with New York City protests.  Clinton backed them.
  2. In June, Clinton called in to a low-wage workers convention in Michigan, endorsing their fight for a $15 minimum wage.
  3. In November, Clinton explained her views in the Iowa debate.  She said she supported going to $15 at the local level, but not at the federal level.  She said, "if we went to $15, there are no international comparisons.That is why I support a $12 national federal minimum wage. That is what the Democrats in the Senate have put forward as a proposal. But I do believe that is a minimum. And places like Seattle, like Los Angeles, like New York City, they can go higher." Clinton was referring to a New York Times opinion piece by Princeton economist Alan Krueger, who said that a $12 federal minimum wage would be safe, but a $15 federal minimum was too far beyond known international models, and would therefore "risk undesirable and unintended consequences."
Before Brooklyn, Clinton's position was clear:  Push for $15 in places that are ready for it and need it, but don't force those standards on every city, town and village in the country too quickly. Instead, push for a safer and smaller (but still very large) step to $12 as a federal minimum. She wasn't going out on a limb. She was explicitly saying she wanted to support the Democratic leadership's position.

That brings us to Wolf Blitzer's question. Yes, if the Dems put a bill for $15 in front of her, why would she oppose it? Sure, it seems too risky now, and $12 looks like a safer progressive step for the time being, but why would she become a maverick on the issue and go against a Democratic Congress? Her "yes" to Blitzer was the obvious answer, and it is consistent with her previous position.

Yet, Sanders acted like it was shocking. Things got heated. Pushed to defend the consistency of her position, she explained:
I have supported the fight for 15. I am proud to have the endorsement of most of the unions that have led the fight for 15. I was proud to stand on the stage with Governor Cuomo, with SEIU and others who have been leading this battle and I will work as hard as I can to raise the minimum wage. I always have. I supported that when I was in the Senate. 
But what I have also said is that we've got to be smart about it, just the way Governor Cuomo was here in New York. If you look at it, we moved more quickly to $15 in New York City, more deliberately toward $12, $12.50 upstate then to $15. That is exactly my position. It's a model for the nation and that's what I will do as president.
Then there was yelling. She tried to explain that she has always distinguished between the federal and local wage laws, and that she has supported going to $15 in some localities, but she and Bernie were basically shouting over each other, so that part didn't make it into the official transcript. However, as we can see in the transcript, she continued after the calm settled. She finally said:
The minimum wage at the national level right now is $7.25, right? We want to raise it higher than it ever has been, but we also have to recognize some states and some cities will go higher, and I support that. I have taken my cue from the Democrats in the Senate, led by Senator Patty Murray and others, like my good friend Kirsten Gillibrand, who has said we will set a national level of $12 and then urge any place that can go above it to go above it. 
Going from $7.25 to $12 is a huge difference. Thirty-five million people will get a raise. One in four working mothers will get a raise. I want to get something done. And I think setting the goal to get to $12 is the way to go, encouraging others to get to $15. But, of course, if we have a Democratic Congress, we will go to $15.
Most of this is plainly consistent with the facts and her previous comments about the minimum wage. She doesn't say "safer" this time. She says "smarter," but the point is the same. Everything makes sense, but then we get to that last sentence: "But, of course, if we have a Democratic Congress, we will go to $15." That's the line that has legitimately raised eyebrows. Does she mean she now thinks that a $15 federal minimum is the way to go? Huh?

On the one hand, we could take that last sentence to mean that a $15 federal minimum is the obvious choice for a Democratic Congress.  However, she had just said that Democrats in Congress prefer $12.  She had also just said that $12 is smarter. If she is suddenly saying a Democratic Congress will "of course" go for $15, she would seem to be contradicting herself.  This isn't just about flip-flopping. It's about logic and sense.

It would be absurd to think that, after laying out a detailed explanation of her position, Clinton suddenly took it all back and enthusiastically supported an entirely different position. We may as well regard her last sentence as nonsense: something she spontaneously threw out there because she thought that it sounded good and would be well-received. However, I think a more reasonable and charitable interpretation is available. I think she meant,"But, of course, if we have a Democratic Congress [that wants to go to $15], we will go to $15."

Wolf Blitzer's question was about whether she would sign if a Democratic Congress passed a bill going to $15. Rather than assume she was suddenly contradicting herself or speaking nonsense, why not assume that she was referring back to Blitzer's original question?

Hillary is following Democratic leadership and progressive economics in supporting the idea that $12 is safer and smarter.  If the Democratic leadership changed its position and a $15 federal minimum wage was no longer considered too risky, of course she would support it. Why wouldn't she?

The verdict: Clinton might not have chosen the clearest way to express her position, but she has been consistent.