The election's other winner: the minimum wage

Hey, Republicans in Congress, give the American worker a modest raise.

As Republicans cast about looking for measures that might meet the definition of what Sen. Mitch McConnell called "common ground" with Democrats, there's an obvious candidate to emerge from the midterm elections. It's an idea that won broad support from the electorate as red as South Dakota and as blue as Illinois and did not once fail at the ballot box, a track record that sets it apart from most any other idea that came up for a vote Tuesday.

Senator McConnell, we give you this can't-miss idea courtesy of the American voter: raise the minimum wage.

In recent years, conservatives in Congress have been steadfastly against this proposal, but that's not always been the case. From Dwight D. Eisenhower to Ronald Reagan, Republicans have embraced minimum wage hikes in the past. And the issue went five-for-five in the midterm election, which means the majority of America already lives in a state with a higher minimum wage than the federal standard of $7.25 an hour.

In addition to South Dakota and Illinois, minimum wage increases were approved in Arkansas, Nebraska and Alaska, red states all. This is not exactly a new trend either. Since 1995, voters in 15 states have approved increases in the state-level minimum wage. Over that time, the issue has not once lost. Not once.

Some cities have gone even further. Last Tuesday, San Francisco voters approved a $15 minimum wage that goes fully into effect in 2018. Seattle already has a similar measure on the books. Neither city is exactly hurting economically — both reported an unemployment rate of 4.7 percent in August, which is well below the national average.

Economists offer mixed opinions about the impact of a higher minimum wage. On the micro-level it can cause low-paying jobs to be lost as employers turn to alternative ways to increase productivity like automation. But on the macro-level, it pumps billions of dollars more in wages into the economy, priming the pump for Main Street businesses and helping wean people off various forms of government assistance. That's good for everyone, including small businesses.

Even investments in increased productivity — those much-feared automated checkouts at fast-food restaurants, for instance — are a useful example of capitalism at work, whether they are caused by higher wages or not. Workers who might have performed such menial labors in the past can be trained to do jobs that are more challenging — just as laborers who might have tended to work horses and carriages in the 19th century now repair cars and trucks.

That's not to suggest the federal minimum wage should be raised overnight or to levels better suited to booming cities. But President Barack Obama's goal of $10.10 per hour — the same level Maryland lawmakers put on the books earlier this year (but which doesn't go fully into effect until 2018) — would seem a good place to start and in line with where the federal minimum wage would be if it had kept up with inflation over the years.

Too much government involvement for politically conservative tastes? Actually, those tastes may be changing. Plenty of Republicans support a higher minimum wage at both the state and federal levels. They include Charlie Baker and Charles Rauner, the newly elected Republican governors of Massachusetts and Illinois. Even Mitt Romney, the party's standard bearer in 2012, supports a higher minimum wage and said so last May when Senate Republicans rejected it.

And here's another tip. The higher minimum wage is good politics for Republicans who are too often seen as tools of Wall Street and billionaires like the Koch brothers. They might even use the issue to leverage some concessions out of Senate Democrats like a trade deal or corporate tax overhaul. That's a win-win, particularly given that polls show a majority of Americans support the higher federal minimum wage — by a greater than two-to-one margin overall including about half of those who identify themselves as Republican.

And, perhaps best of all for the GOP, it's an accomplishment that breaks with the Democrats' "Party of No" narrative and takes the issue off the table in 2016. It might not get the tea party types excited, but nobody gets kicked out of office for raising the minimum wage. Voters made that point clear enough on Tuesday.

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