Just a few days ago prominent liberal economist James K. Galbraith strongly endorsed the economic proposals at the heart of my recent immigration article, arguing they constituted the best chance for reviving the American economy. And now National Review‘s leading domestic policy analyst, Reihan Salam, has written a lengthy column discussing Galbraith’s arguments and exploring the political implications for the current presidential campaign.
Mitt Romney stands as the very strong favorite to gain the Republican nomination, but he may have been severely wounded by the sharp attacks of Gingrich and his backers, which portray him as a heartless financial manipulator who made his huge fortune because “he likes to fire people.” Perhaps partly as a result, Romney’s support among less affluent Republicans–let alone less affluent voters in general–is quite weak. And in a general election campaign, President Obama’s TV ads could simply quote the harsh statements of these leading conservative Republicans to devastating effect, much like George W.H.Bush destroyed Michael Dukakis’s candidacy largely by regurgitating the “Willie Horton” charges previously made by Al Gore. This puts any Romney campaign in a difficult box.
But as Salam points out, that box may have a crack. Apparently Romney has generally been supportive of minimum wage laws, and has even endorsed their automatic increase through indexing, a somewhat heretical stance in the eyes of some of his rival candidates. So if Romney supports a minimum wage and also supports raising the minimum wage, he would be seen as bold rather than completely unprincipled if he called for a minimum-wage increase measured in dollars rather than pennies.
Certainly his Republican rivals would leap to the attack. Perhaps Gingrich and his supporters would immediately switch from accusing Romney of being a vile “capitalist” to denouncing him instead as a vile “communist.” Perhaps Santorum would explain how sheer “grit and gumption,” rather than any government wage laws, had enabled him to rise from his humble working-class roots to earning a million-dollar-plus annual income as a “corporate consultant” the moment he left high political office.
But I suspect that none of these attacks would be particularly effective given the demographics of the undecided Republican voters in approaching primary states like South Carolina and Florida, and NR’s Salam feels the same. He may have mixed feelings about the actual economic questions involved, but he recognizes that if Romney dared to propose a steep rise in the federal minimum wage “he would devastate his Republican rivals.”
And that would just be the beginning. It is well known that food stamp use has skyrocketed during the four years of the Obama Administration, and while it is not entirely fair to blame a president for the consequences of a financial collapse that began shortly before he entered office, politics—like life—is not always fair. So consider the potential impact of a Romney campaign tagline such as “President Obama gave you food stamps but I’ll give you a Living Wage.”
In particular, this sort of issue might be ideal at attracting the votes of the huge white working class, considered a key swing group in this particular election cycle. I suspect that someone, liberal or conservative, who currently scrapes by on $8.85 per hour working as a Wal-Mart greeter would tend to pay a great deal of attention to a presidential candidate who promised that his first act in office would be to raise that hourly wage to an even $12.00, even if rival campaign ads were endlessly denouncing that fellow as a “heartless capitalist.” Furthermore, since top Wal-Mart executives have themselves spent many years pleading for a large rise in the minimum wage, if the Wal-Mart CEO stood on the same platform and publicly endorsed the proposed plan, that candidate promise would seem just like money in the bank.
Every hour of the day, American politicians are selling their votes to special interests in exchange for large financial contributions. So perhaps just this once it might only be fair to give American workers a chance to sell their own votes in exchange for a far more modest sum of two or three dollars per hour worked.
Sometimes American politics can take unusual twists and turns.