Romney's flip-flop on raising the minimum wage betrays what Republicans really mean when they talk about small government.
Last month I wrote about how economic issues like the minimum wage were twisting Republican candidates into pretzels as they tried to make it look like they cared about the economic squeeze on American families while toeing the line on free-market orthodoxy. As I said at the time:
Romney, clearly aware that he needs to support some policies that show him sympathetic to struggling families, has broken with free-market orthodoxy by supporting indexing the minimum wage to inflation. For this he was loudly attacked by Fox News, The Wall Street Journal, and Rush Limbaugh, among others. Andrew McCarthy’s post in the National Review captured the mood with the headline, “See Mitt Pander.”
It turns out Mitt couldn't take the heat from his right yet again (which makes you wonder how he'd deal with the pressures of actually being president). This week he got back in line with right-wing economic theology, telling CNBC's Larry Kudlow "there's probably not a need to raise the minimum wage." Even in reversing his position he can't help throwing in a waffle: "probably."
In the same interview, Romney told Kudlow that "people are hurting; they want someone who can see rising incomes, rising jobs, and a bright future for their kids." Unless, it appears, those people are working full-time at minimum wage and still don't make enough to rise above the poverty level.
Maybe the problem is that full-time workers are not "the very poor" who Romney isn't "concerned about." He told us "we have a safety net there. If it needs repair, I'll fix it." So I guess since minimum wage workers are just poor, not the very poor, Romney doesn't think they need help.
As Romney knows, it's easy to go after the very poor, who are demonized as dependent on government hand-outs in code for racist politics. But there is overwhelming support for people who are working hard and still barely able to feed their families. Even if most people make well above the minimum wage, they still feel the economic crush of stagnant wages, disappearing benefits, and job insecurity.
You can just see the Obama campaign lampooning Romney for pretending he understands that "people are hurting" while opposing raising the minimum wage, after he was for it. It's a perfect combination of Romney the rich guy who doesn't get it, Romney the captive of the right wing, and Romney the flip-flopper.
But beneath the political vulnerability is a deeper truth that Obama and progressives more broadly need to drive home this year. When Republicans preach smaller government, less regulation, and defending business as job creators, they are sentencing families to a future that is the opposite of what Romney told Kudlow he wants. It's a future of shrinking incomes, disappearing jobs, and a darker future for our children.
We don't need smaller government; we need government that works for working people, not the ultra-rich. We don't need less regulation; we need rules that assure that working families can live in dignity. It's not businesses that are the job creators. It's people who go to work every day, who shop on Main Street, who are the business creators. And that includes people who work their butts off every day at the minimum wage.
Richard Kirsch is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, a Senior Adviser to USAction, and the author of Fighting for Our Health. He was National Campaign Manager of Health Care for America Now during the legislative battle to pass reform.