Hillary Clinton Just Turned the Democratic Party Into the Party of the $15 an Hour Minimum Wage

The Democratic frontrunner proves she's willing to take a dangerous, irresponsible gamble with the economy.


CNN / Turner Press

At last night's presidential debate, the Democratic Party became the party of the $15-an-hour minimum wage.

Facing off against rival candidate Bernie Sanders on CNN, Hillary Clinton seemed to endorse the idea of a national $15 minimum. Asked whether she would, as president, sign a bill mandating a $15 federal minimum, Clinton said, emphatically: "Of course I would."

That's a new one for Clinton. As she noted in the rest of her response, she has previously voiced support for activists pushing for a $15 minimum at the local level. But she's also endorsed tiered approaches that raise wages higher and faster in wealthier urban areas than in their poorer rural counterparts. And when asked about a national minimum, she's always said that as president she would try to raise the national wage floor to $12 an hour.

In a follow-up, Clinton's campaign clarified the candidate's statement, saying that she "supports a $12 federal minimum wage—but believes the federal minimum is just that, and encourages states, cities, and workers through bargaining to go even higher, including a $15 minimum wage in places where it makes sense." But the fact is, she clearly said that as president she would sign a bill raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour everywhere in the U.S. if it came to her desk. That may not be a flip-flop on her part, but it is, at least, an update of her old position.

And it represents a major shift in both the Democratic party and national politics. Just a few years ago, President Obama's endorsement of raising the federal minimum to $10.10 was big news, and it helped organize the rest of the party around that number. In the years since, the figure has only grown, with relatively centrist figures in the party like Hillary Clinton endorsing $12 an hour (while trying to play nice with $15-an-hour activists) while activists pushed for a higher figure. Legislation to impose a $15 minimum wage around the country, in places like California, the city of Seattle, and New York, has only intensified that pressure. And the presidential race against Bernie Sanders, who has rallied supporters around his calls for a $15 an hour minimum, appears to have been the final push for Clinton.

As the Democratic party's likely presidential nominee, Clinton is the de facto leader of the party right now, or at the very least, one of its most influential voices, particularly when it comes to setting the party's policy agenda. So just as Obama's endorsement of a $10 minimum moved the party three years ago, Clinton's clear willingness to approve a federal $15 minimum wage, even if it's higher than what she might propose herself, is certain to move the party toward a general endorsement of the $15 minimum. At the very least, Democratic legislators who are concerned about a $15 minimum will likely quiet their criticisms; if nothing else, Clinton's movement shows how difficult it is for Democratic politicians to resist pressure to support a national $15 wage.

Which means that one of the major parties now effectively backs a minimum wage that is supported by essentially no economic evidence or experience whatsoever, a figure that is so high that it makes even economists on the left who support raising the federal minimum from its current $7.25 an hour uncomfortable.

That includes people like Arindrajit Dube, the co-author of a study which found "no detectable employment losses" from U.S. minimum wage increases in the past, who told Timothy Lee of Vox that substantial job market losses could be the result of California adopting a $15 minimum. California's plan, he said, was a very big, very risky experiment with a massive state economy: "If you're risk-averse, this would not be the scale at which to try things," he told Lee. 

And it includes people like Alan Krueger, a former Obama administration official who conducted some of the most widely cited research suggesting that some types of minimum wage increases would not result in job losses. Writing in The New York Times last October, he warned that increasing the minimum to $15 could well hurt economies across the country. "$15 an hour is beyond international experience," he wrote, "and could well be counterproductive. Although some high-wage cities and states could probably absorb a $15-an-hour minimum wage with little or no job loss, it is far from clear that the same could be said for every state, city and town in the United States."

Again, this is not the position of some anti-minimum-wage crusader. This is from an economist who worked in the Obama administration and whose research has been critical in building support for a substantial hike in the federal minimum wage. Even he cannot go as far as Bernie Sanders has gone, and as far as Hillary Clinton went last night.

The point is that there is simply no precedent for a minimum wage hike at this scale, and there is no evidence to support the belief that it definitely would not backfire. Indeed, there is good reason to believe that it would be very harmful, especially in rural, less wealthy communities where wages are typically lower than in high-cost urban areas. (Another thing this reveals is just how beholden to the demands of activists living in those high-cost urban areas the Democratic party has become.)

The most generous way to describe Clinton's stated willingness to sign a $15 an hour national minimum wage into law, then, is to say that she is willing to make a massive gamble on the nation's economy and the jobs of millions of citizens based on essentially no direct evidence that it would pay off. It is a dangerous and irresponsible position on its own, and it is likely to move both her party and the nation in a dangerous and irresponsible direction. Would she really be willing to take a risk this big? Apparently the answer is: Of course she would.