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Mitt Romney Flip-Flops His Way to the Top

Mitt Romney will be the Republican to face President Obama in the fall. Tuesday night was the clincher, as the former Massachusetts governor won in Wisconsin, Maryland and Washington D.C. He may stumble on, but the Catholic zealot Rick Santorum is finished, wiped out by Romney's vast financial resources.

Eight years ago, Romney began his bid to win the Republican nomination, only to be crushed by John McCain. In that campaign, he was tagged as a crypto-liberal former governor of Massachusetts and author of a health plan derided by Democratic candidate Barack Obama.

Week after tedious week in his second bid, Romney has had to stab his own plan in the back, lashed by his Republican opponents as the true originator of "Obamacare," now under review by the U.S. Supreme Court. Whatever tincture of liberalism he might once have exhibited has long since vanished. His conservatism is of a harshness way beyond the positions of the last Republican challenger to a Democratic president, Bob Dole, who was thrashed by Bill Clinton in 1996.

Romney's opportunism in junking previous positions when under conservative pressure has been unremitting. Take the single biggest issue in American politics today, the minimum wage.

If you adjust for inflation, median personal income in America hasn't moved for almost half a century. Nearly a quarter of U.S. households have zero to negative net worth. It just takes one unlucky turn of the cards — an illness, an accident, a brush with the law — to put them under.

In 2005, Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott called on Congress to raise the minimum wage, since "our customers simply don't have the money to buy basic necessities between pay checks." The boss of the largest corporation on the planet, which employs 1.3 million Americans and has 850,000 customers in its stores at any given moment, was identifying what was then and is now America's No. 1 problem: A huge chunk of the population barely survives on starvation wages.

Even though the cost of living has gone up, the federal minimum wage hasn't moved since 2009, when the last of a series of increases signed into law by George W. Bush kicked in. In 2011 dollars, the minimum wage was more than $10 in 1968, when jobs and pay were peaking for America's workers.

The current minimum wage ranges between $7.25 and $8.67 per hour. Work a 40-hour week for $7.25 and you end up with $15,080 a year, just above the $11,000 federal poverty line for an individual but well below the $22,000 for a family of four. In 1914, the year Henry Ford doubled the pay of his workers at Highland Park to $5 a day, an assembly line worker could buy a Model T with four months' pay. The price, $15,080, is just a bit more than the manufacturer's recommended retail price for the Ford Fiesta ($13,200), Ford's cheapest car this year.

In November 2008, President-elect Obama promised to "raise the minimum wage to $9.50 an hour by 2011 and index it to inflation to make sure that full-time workers can earn a living wage that allows them to raise their families and pay for basic needs such as food, transportation and housing, things so many people take for granted." It was a pledge to low-paid workers to give them a 30 percent pay hike.

Of all Obama's betrayals, this was one of the most bitter. He never really tried, skittish with fear that he'd be nailed by the big business lobbies and their creatures in Congress as an inflationeer.

If ever there was an issue on which Romney could get real traction with the blue-collar voters who liked Santorum, it's the minimum wage. As Ron Unz, publisher of The American Conservative put it: "these days a crucial component of the Republican electorate consists of working-class whites, often strongly religious ones, who tend to live in non-unionized low-wage states or otherwise generally subsist, sometimes with considerable difficulty, on the lower rungs of the economic ladder. Proposing a large wage increase to a socially conservative evangelical Christian who works at Wal-Mart and currently struggles to pay her bills would be the sort of simple, clear message that might easily cut through an enormous amount of ideological clutter."

Romney was perfectly positioned. In January of this year, he said at a campaign event in New Hampshire that he favored raising the minimum wage automatically each year to keep pace with inflation. He could have built on this, just as Reagan did in his 1980 campaign with entirely factitious economic populism. But no. A couple of whacks from The Wall Street Journal and fears of being pilloried as a liberal saw Romney flop on the issue at the start of March. Now he wants the wage to stay at $7.25, with no indexing for inflation. In other words, he wants poor people to earn less every year.

In his first bid for the nomination in 2008, Romney's foreign policy positions were relatively demure. This time he's swerved into Paleolithic Cold War conservatism, rivaling McCain's in 2008. Near the end of March, he was bellowing that, "Russia is America's No. 1 geopolitical foe." He wants to keep troops in Afghanistan and bomb Iran — this last one a predictable bow to the Israel lobby.

In February, president Obama trailed Romney in the top 12 swing states, 46 to 48 percent. Yesterday a USA Today/Gallup poll reported that in these same swing states a majority of registered voters now favor Obama by 9 points. According to the USA Today/Gallup pollsters, the biggest change came from women younger than 50, where the president now leads Romney by 2 to 1. Not long before the poll was taken, Romney, fending of attacks from Santorum, said he wants to get rid of Planned Parenthood and endorsed the Blunt amendment, which would have allowed employers to deny coverage of contraception on religious grounds.

Romney has beaten off all challengers, but now he sports all their most unalluring features. The Obama camp is not unhappy.

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