Twice in its history, the Republican Party regained its direction and popularity after similar disasters by returning to its original defense of widespread individual economic success. The same rebranding is possible today, if Republicans demote Reagan from hero to history and rally to a leader like Lincoln, Roosevelt or Eisenhower — someone who believes that the government should promote economic opportunity rather than protect the rich.
As I write, a photograph of my grandfather, Senator Robert Alphonso Taft, looks across at me from the wall of my office. He led the Republican Party in the United States Senate in the 1940s and early 1950s, ran for the Republican nomination for president three times and was known as “Mr. Republican.” If he were alive today, I can assure you he wouldn’t even recognize the modern Republican Party, which has repeatedly brought the United States of America to the edge of a fiscal cliff — seemingly with every intention of pushing us off the edge…
Watching the Republican Party use the full faith and credit of the United States to try to roll back Obamacare, watching its members threaten not to raise the debt limit — which Warren Buffett rightly called a “political weapon of mass destruction” — to repeal a tax on medical devices, I so wanted to ask a similar question: “Have you no sense of responsibility? At long last, have you left no sense of responsibility?”
There is more than a passing similarity between Joseph McCarthy and Ted Cruz, between McCarthyism and the Tea Party movement. The Republican Party survived McCarthyism because, ultimately, its excesses caused it to burn out. And eventually party elders in the mold of my grandfather were able to realign the party with its brand promise: The Republican Party is (or should be) the Stewardship Party. The Republican brand is (or should be) about responsible behavior. The Republican party is (or should be) at long last, about decency.
Mr. Eisenhower — the first Republican to occupy the White House since the minimum wage was enacted — had floated the idea of increasing it from 75 cents an hour early in the year. Now, with the economy humming along, it appeared the perfect time to put the plan in motion. Even the president’s economic adviser, the cautious Arthur Burns, agreed that the only question left to decide was what “the optimum figure” for the new wage would be.
Handwritten notes from the cabinet meeting, stored at the Eisenhower Library, suggest that the president listened intently to the numbers being bandied about. George Humphrey, the treasury secretary, declared that going to $1 an hour “would be too much” and could undermine smooth relations with the business community. All eyes then fell on Labor Secretary Jim Mitchell, a plain-spoken man who had once been in charge of employee relations at Bloomingdale’s. One dollar, he countered, “has great appeal.” The vice president, Richard Nixon, added that it would be “unfortunate” if the administration recommended less than $1 because that would only enhance the odds that Democrats in Congress would “raise the ante.”
Finally, Mr. Eisenhower spoke up. “We just have to seek that place where both sides will curse us,” he said. “Then we’ll be right.”
The law establishing the federal minimum wage, the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, had called for just such a balancing act. It stipulated that workers be paid at least enough to maintain a “minimum standard of living necessary for health, efficiency and general well-being.” At the same time, though, it sought to do this “without substantially curtailing employment.”
Mr. Eisenhower ultimately proposed an increase to 90 cents — and the cursing came on cue. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce warned that a 90-cent minimum would be “self-defeating” because many mom-and-pop businesses would have to shut their doors and lay people off, hurting the very low-skilled workers who were supposed to benefit. George Meany, the president of the American Federation of Labor, denounced the administration’s plan as “grossly inadequate” to lift up the poor and pushed for $1.25 an hour.
In many ways, the economic debate hasn’t changed much over the years. Opponents have long claimed that imposing a higher minimum wage kills jobs. “The direct unemployment,” wrote Prof. George Stigler in a landmark article in the June 1946 American Economic Review, “is substantial and certain.”
Just Wednesday, Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan told a congressional hearing that he would abolish the minimum wage if he could. “I’m not in favor of cutting anybody’s earnings or preventing them from rising,” he said, “but I am against them losing their jobs because of artificial government intervention, which is essentially what the minimum wage is.”
Yet other analysts have disagreed, touting the minimum wage as an effective means for helping working people to escape poverty. Those in this camp contend that as long as it isn’t excessive, an increase in the minimum wage will destroy few, if any, jobs. Their rationale: As businesses raise their wages, they’re apt to suffer less turnover and will often find that their employees are more diligent, leading to a jump in output that more than makes up for the extra cost to the payroll.
As the Eisenhower plan moved to Capitol Hill, the action unfolded in a manner typical of the era. Democrats, by and large, wanted a higher minimum wage than did their GOP counterparts. But the divide wasn’t purely partisan. Southern Democrats railed against a raise, while “liberal Republicans” favored one.
In July 1955, a bill emerged from Congress to increase the minimum wage to $1. A couple of weeks later, Mr. Eisenhower signed the legislation into law. “I think ‘fairness’ is a good word” to express what the president hoped to achieve, says Maxwell Rabb, who was Mr. Eisenhower’s cabinet secretary. “He did not want a divided nation,” and lifting wages for those at the bottom was part of that larger agenda.
As a Congressman, George H.W. Bush earned the nickname “Rubbers” for his deep interest in population control and family planning.