The Republican Candidates Lied About the Minimum Wage in Last Night’s Debate

This is the moment when Ted Cruz got serious.

This is the moment when Ted Cruz got serious.

Let’s briefly sum up the debate performances of the Republican candidates who don’t really matter in the long run: John Kasich floundered. Rand Paul got in one good hit on Donald Trump and then faded into the background. Jeb Bush seemed to find his pace for about thirty seconds before collapsing into the same old catastrophe that he’s been since he first announced his candidacy for president. Carly Fiorina was fine, but she doesn’t have what it takes to attract voters.

And the frontrunners, Donald Trump and Ben Carson, did exactly what they needed to do: they floated above the fray, speaking directly to their supporters and avoiding any topics that were not their pet issues.

This debate was about two men: Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz. Rubio was exactly the kind of presidential candidate he needed to be. He launched an unprovoked attack on Rand Paul, simply so he could deliver a practiced rant on foreign policy. He talked about the economy and blue collar workers with concern on his face. He was a little wobbly when a moderator lobbed him a softball question about the difference between he and Hillary Clinton, but maybe that was just because the question was so easy that he was taken by surprise. There’s something about Rubio’s approach that rubs me raw–too overproduced, trying a little too hard–but it was easy to imagine him as the Republican nominee tonight. He had the comportment of a winning candidate.

Cruz, though, is the sleeper. There was a moment where he dove in on John Kasich on the topic of banking bailouts. It was a ridiculous moment in American politics, because they were both trying to sound like populists, even though Kasich is a former Lehman Brothers employee and Cruz’s wife until recently worked at Goldman Sachs. But it was an impressive moment because you could see Cruz really knuckle down on Kasich and display a tenacity he hasn’t yet shown on the debate stage. Cruz is a championship debater, but he’s mostly kept to the center of the pack in the Republican debates so far. This is deliberate. He’s conserving energy, only expending as much effort as he needs to stay in relevant in the polls. When he turned on Kasich and ripped into him, Cruz demonstrated that he’s got the energy, the skills, and the drive to dominate in these debates. He just chooses not to right now.

But all this is horse-race talk. It’s the kind of thing that won’t matter a month from now. What will matter is the fact that the candidates were finally asked about the $15 minimum wage tonight. It was the first time they’d really been asked about raising the minimum wage in a debate, and their answers were telling. Donald Trump said that America couldn’t afford to raise wages right now.(Unemployment is down to 5%, and the economy added more than 250,000 jobs last month. If not now, when?) Carson repeated the tired lie that unemployment goes up when the minimum wage is increased, and Rubio called raising the minimum wage–not to $15, mind you, but raising the minimum wage at all–“a disaster.”

None of this is true. Raising the minimum wage does not cause job loss. States that have raised the minimum wage are experiencing faster job growth than low-wage states. It is simply not true that raising the minimum wage destroys an economy.

In fact, raising the minimum wage gives more people more money to spend, which adds to the economy. If more workers have more money, they will spend more money on goods and services, which will add the need for more jobs. That’s called growth, and it’s how you create a healthy economy. They’re trying to scare you with their unfounded threats of job loss, to trick you into arguing their own case for them. It’s worked in the past. It’s not working anymore; as we collect more and more data about raising minimum wages, we’re starting to understand that those same old threats are not founded in reality.

But most of the candidates did acknowledge that wages are too low, even if they were opposed to raising the minimum wage. What did they offer for solutions? Cut taxes, reduce regulations, make the environment supposedly more favorable to “business,” by which they mean the people at the top of business, the wealthiest Americans. Sound familiar? It’s trickle down economics, the belief that if you hand more money to the wealthiest Americans, eventually they will hand some of that money to the poorest Americans. It doesn’t work. It never works. Wages in America have been stagnant for thirty years, which is about how long we’ve been living in a trickle-down economy.

I don’t know who will be the Republican presidential candidate in 2016, but I do know what that candidate will say when he or she is asked about raising the minimum wage. It’s too risky, they’ll say. They’ll threaten higher unemployment. They’ll talk about giving money to the bosses, phrasing it as growth. This is the conservative playbook, and it’s the oldest game in town.

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Paul Constant
Paul Constant has written about politics, books, and film for Newsweek, The Progressive, the Utne Reader, and alternative weeklies around the country.