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Behind Romney’s Minimum Wage “Flip-Flop”

As I wrote yesterday, at this point it no longer matters whether or not Mitt Romney takes the positions he does because he truly believes they are right or to satisfy conservatives in his party. The right-wingers who own his party will demand his fealty, if Romney wants the Republican nomination. They will demand even more of President Romney, because at that point he will owe them — and they will own him. So, they’re his positions now. He owns them and he owns the consequences.

In that sense, Romney’s dizzying about-face on minimum wage, isn’t so much another page in his long history of “flip-flops,” so much as example of an increasingly well-trained candidate jumping through another flaming hoop standing between him and the White House. With, of course, a little encouragement from the whips of the ringleaders of the right.

As recently as January, Romney supported automatically raising the minimum wage to keep pace with the cost of living. It’s the same position he held as governor of Massachusetts. Governor Romney even said in 2002 that the minimum wage should be tied to inflation. Candidate Romney tried to go there in 2012, but was quickly brought into line.

On minimum wage, Romney now lines up with mainstream conservative thinking. Republicans have advocated minimal wages for all, and called for the minimum wage to be rolled back or abolished altogether in 2010, 2011 and 2012. So, Romney’s new position on minimum wage will serve him well in the primary. But should he win the nomination, Romney and the Republican party may find out that their position doesn’t play so well in the general election.

Back in 2010, two thirds of Americans supporting increasing the minimum wage. After all, millions of Americans had already had their wages reduced through unpaid furloughs and reduced working hours, after their wages stagnated for decades while the wealthiest saw their income skyrocket. On top of that, companies figured out that they could demand more of workers by increasing productivity without increasing wages. Thanks to the “no-quit” economy, workers were too desperate to hold on to their jobs and paychecks, because there was nowhere else to go.

Two years later, little has changed.

  • Corporate profits are up, but wages lag behind. Corporate profits increased 5.1 percent in the last quarter of 2011, reaching their highest level since 1950. Seventy percent of companies did better than estimated. By contrast, hourly wages increased just 1.5 percent, while inflation increased 2.3 percent.
  • Real wages fell in 2011. Americans worked harder for, as real wages fell by 2 percent while worker productivity increased by 3.2 percent.
  • More Americans joined the working poor. The number of low-income families has increased every year for the past three years, growing to 10.2 million in 2010. That means 1 in 3 working families are struggling to meet their basic needs. Some used to be middle class, but job loss, wage cuts, and reductions in work hours have taken a toll.
  • Young workers are seeing their wages decline. Young people just entering the job market are being the brunt of downward pressure on wages, driven by high unemployment. Hourly wages have dropped 11 percent for male college graduates over the last decade, and 7.6 percent for female college graduates.

Richard Kirsch writes that economic realities have made Americans more sympathetic to low-wage earners, not less.

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.

…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.

The reason there is “overwhelming support for people who are working hard and still barely able to feed their families” is because more and more Americans are doing just that. Many who aren’t in that position know too well how easily and how quickly they could be. How will Romney compare with Obama on the minimum wage in the general election? Well, President Obama can can honestly claim that he at least wanted to raise the minimum wage. He can even make a reasonable case that Republicans in Congress wouldn’t have allowed it, if he’d tried.

Mitt Romney’s efforts to reach out to conservatives are as well reported as his need to reach out to working-class voters. The same positions that help him attract conservatives probably won’t win over many working-class Americans. Quite the opposite. If Romney had the courage to stand up to the right wing of his party, he might have an issue that would repair his image as an out-of-touch rich guy. Instead, he’s further cementing the perception of him as a guy whose out of touch with the realities ordinary Americans deal with every day, an couldn’t care less. That’s the guy Republicans want to nominate in 2012, but not necessarily the guy voters will want in the White House.

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