JACK SPENCER: Either rebuff or be bluffed

Democrats put a popular proposal on the statewide ballot; hordes of so-called “low information” voters flood the polls; the measure passes and the Democrats sweep to victory on the tide. That scenario is a recurring nightmare to many who are right of center in the political spectrum.

This year the perceived potential nightmare lurks behind the issue of increasing the minimum wage. Clearly this is the issue Democrats have decided to pursue to distract voters and possibly avoid a backlash against Obamacare. They are promoting minimum wage hikes at state levels and at the national level.

Some may ask, what’s new about Democrats calling for minimum wage hikes; aren’t they almost always doing that? Yes, but this time it is all a nationally-orchestrated campaign. The idea is to have virtually all the Democrats in the country spinning rhetoric on the same issue at the same time. It is a one issue, one choir, and one chord strategy. Their hope is to make minimum wage “the central issue” of the 2014 elections.

Whether or not this gambit works for the Democrats might depend on how Republicans react. That’s where the recurring nightmare of Democrats winning with a popular left-leaning ballot proposal comes into play. Simply put; Michigan Republicans should identify this unlikely scenario for what it is — it is almost surely just a nightmare; just an illusionary bad dream.

Legislative Democrats have introduced legislation in the state legislature to hike the state’s current $7.40 an hour minimum wage to $10 an hour. Prospective Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mark Schauer has proposed increasing it to $9.25 an hour.

Behind these proposals there is an implication that if Republicans don’t go along with some type of increase, the Democrats could place the issue on the ballot. The potential potency of this implied threat isn’t based on the feasibility that such a proposal could carry the day; it is based on the possible impact it might have on the imaginations of many Republicans — advisors, leaders and rank and file.

Generally speaking, the political right seems to have a congenital blind spot regarding low-income voters. They tend to mischaracterize the motivations of this segment of potential voters.

Perhaps it isn’t surprising that — in the abstract — conservatives often place too much weight on financial enhancement as a motive and not enough weight on fear. In the case of a minimum wage hike, the financial enhancement would be higher wages; the fears would be of not getting or keeping jobs, being overworked because their employers don’t hire needed help, or having their hours cut so their employers can stay in business.

These factors are important regarding the minimum wage issue overall, but especially so if it came down to a ballot proposal in which a “yes” vote was required for passage. With any ballot proposal, fear is the most powerful weapon on the battlefield; and the utility of fear is that opponents of a proposal can almost always use it to influence all voters, not just those who are most likely to be immediately impacted by the measure.

Getting voters to say “no” to a proposal is nearly always easier to do than it is to get them to say “yes.” This reality is a natural disadvantage for any entity that puts a proposal on the ballot.

Remember Proposal 2 in 2012? The Unions, with encouragement from the Democrats, threatened to put a proposal on the ballot to lock collective bargaining advantages they’d gained over previous decades into the state constitution. This threat was never about passing the proposal on its merits, but that somehow the unions would be able to trick voters into thinking the proposal was to simply guarantee collective bargaining as a right.

Readers might be able to picture the hand-wringing in certain GOP circles over the prospect of the unions pulling off this coup. But in reality the unions would have only been able to succeed with the plan if they’d faced little organized opposition.

Once the proposal (Proposal 2) was on the ballot, it was no longer just an abstract concept. Proposal 2 was going to go before the voters and its opponents had no choice but to engage it. They needed money to campaign against it — and they got the money; they needed a catchy phrase to use against it — and they came up with the phrase. The proposal was soundly rejected by the voters.

Isn’t it amazing what happens when procrastination and avoidance is no longer an option?

One would think that, after Proposal 2 in 2012, Michigan’s Democrats and unions would have lost their taste for ballot proposals. All that money, time, and effort that could have been spent on other races ended up being defeated by less money and the brainstorming of a handful of political consultants who were forced to roll up their sleeves and find a way to win.

In point of fact, the Democrats and unions have almost surely lost their taste for ballot proposals — at least for the time being. Nevertheless, their opponents should be prepared to deal with the possibility that a minimum wage hike proposal could be placed on the statewide ballot. But, while being prepared, they should not overestimate the difficulties of defeating such a proposal or that its presence on the ballot would be a tremendous aid to the Democrats in other races.

If it is really so menacing and unbeatable, why haven’t the Democrats put a minimum wage hike proposal on the ballot before now? Another thought: why haven’t they put it on the ballot in every other election-year just to bring out their base while forcing their opponents to spend money to knock it down?

Could it be that, when examined closely from a political standpoint, a minimum wage hike proposal has more warts and flaws than appears to be the case from inch-deep, mile-wide polling?

Democrats seem to be much better than Republicans when it comes to testing their opponents’ armor for weaknesses and cracks. As a result, Republicans spend more time on the defensive than they ought to. Regarding the unlikely prospect that a minimum wage hike proposal will actually be on the Michigan ballot in 2014, the Republicans should borrow Clint Eastwood’s movie line and just say: “Go ahead, make my day.”