Minimum-wage issue sets Clinton apart from GOP



WASHINGTON -- At the most obvious level, President Clinton's decision to press for an increase in the minimum wage is an empty gesture. The chances of winning approval from this Congress are slim and none.

But, empty or not, this is precisely the kind of gesture Clinton needs to make as part of the process of identifying the differences between, on the one hand, himself and the Democratic Party and, on the other, the new conservative Republican majority.

It is also just the kind of gesture this president needs to make to reinforce his own bona fides with constituencies that still make up the heart of his party -- labor, blacks and liberals -- but have been nourishing significant doubts about him.

The minimum wage issue has always been an important one symbolically, as well as practically, for organized labor. That was the reason Clinton endorsed an increase during his campaign two years ago when many union leaders were uneasy about supporting a Southern governor from a state not notoriously friendly to unionism.

But the president never advanced legislation to carry it out in the first two years of his term during which Democrats controlled both houses of Congress and there was a reasonable chance for approval. The minimum wage has been pegged at $4.25 an hour for the past four years without any escalator for inflation.

The argument against such increases is that many employers, particularly in small businesses, will be unable to create new entry-level jobs because they cannot afford to pay, for example, $5 an hour rather than the current $4.25 to unskilled workers. But several studies of the impact of previous increases have found the evidence murky and contradictory.

Supporters of a higher wage argue that the most common result is that those who pay minimum wage -- fast-food outlets, for instance -- simply pass on the higher wage costs in setting their prices, just as other employers do to compensate for increased payroll costs.

But this controversy is far more political than substantive. The Republicans already are pointing to Clinton's call for an increase as evidence that he is an old-fashioned liberal playing up to the unions they define as "special interests."

Clinton has valid reasons to take that chance, however. It makes sense for him politically to juxtapose himself against the Republicans as a champion of the most disadvantaged people in American society when the argument is over a minimum wage that doesn't even lift workers to the poverty level.

Although Clinton has been criticized by some of the leading "New Democrats" -- chairman David McCurdy of the Democratic Leadership Council, for example -- for being too liberal during his first two years in office, there are many party strategists who believe the first imperative for him now is to remind Democrats about the issues on which they differ so clearly from the Republicans.

In fact, the president has a strong record in creating jobs for workers with low or limited skills; if anything, a disproportionate number of the 5 million new jobs created during his stewardship fall into that category. And Clinton also can claim whatever praise is deserved for the Earned Income Tax Credit in the 1993 tax law that is now paying benefits to 15 million working people.

The White House also can boast about other measures aimed at improving the position of working-class voters, the most obvious being the family leave bill allowing workers unpaid leave without risk to their jobs in cases of family emergencies.

But Clinton doesn't get as much credit as might be expected, perhaps because the White House salesmen are ineffectual or more likely because voters are focused on other facets of the president's personality and performance. The perception that Clinton is too political and lacking firm convictions is, the opinion polls suggest, more damaging than the notion he is another Hubert Humphrey liberal.

Bill Clinton isn't going to change that simply by supporting an increase in the minimum wage, but it is still a gesture worth making as a reminder of the differences between Democrats and Republicans.

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