The 2012 presidential campaign, now underway with the withdrawal of Rick Santorum, promises to be a study in contrasts. All presidential campaigns are, of course, but the contrasts between presumptive Republican challenger Mitt Romney and President Obama are striking and nowhere more so than when it comes to populism, an ideology that I loosely define as contrasting the needs of the people against the entrenched elite in pushing for social change.
Romney is tacking furiously toward the center and away from some of the more reactionary views that he espoused in sucking up to the right-wing GOP base in securing the GOP nomination while at the same time convincing few Republicans that he has the right stuff, let alone any stuff at all.
But even if Romney’s advisers told him that he had to do so, it is much too late for him to shed the anti-populism that he espoused during the primary season as represented by Paul Ryan’s Reverse Robin Hood budget plan.
Preaching from the populist hymnal comes naturally for Obama, whose first paying gig was as a community organizer in Chicago. He has been riding that horse hard since last December when he stepped up to a podium in Osawatomie, Kansas, the town where Teddy Roosevelt had delivered his famous New Nationalism speech in 1910 to decry a Republican economic agenda that favored the rich at the expense of the middle class and poor.
Obama delivered a virtually identical message in firing the opening salvo of his re-election campaign. In presenting himself as the defender of working-class Americans and Republicans as defenders of a small elite, the so-called 1 percenters, Obama in effect rolled a grenade into the Republican presidential tent — and filthy rich Romney’s in particular — that will reverberate all the way to November.
In this Obama has a secret weapon: Lilly Ledbetter, a 70-year-old widow who lives in Jacksonville, Alabama on a small pension and like many Americans worries about losing her home.
Ledbetter filed suit against the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company because, as one of its few woman area managers, it had paid her significantly less than male counterparts with similar seniority. Her case reached the U.S. Supreme Court, where a five justice majority led by Samuel Alito fell back on a technicality in dismissing the suit — that employers cannot be sued under the Civil Rights Act over race or gender pay discrimination if the claims are based on decisions made 180 days ago or more.
The upshot of the defeat was the the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, which passed Congress despite ferocious Republican opposition and closed the 180-day loophole.
This brings us back to Romney, who initially refused to be pinned down on whether he supports the act (in a now familiar refrain, his advisers told reporters that “we’ll get back to you on that”) but at the same time has blamed Obama in claiming that more women than men have lost jobs during and in the aftermath of the Bush Recession. That may be technically correct if a narrow set of parameters are used, but it is a fiction because in reality there are fewer jobs available for men.
Then came the inevitable Romney flip-flop.
Realizing the damage that Democrats had inflicted in pushing back against the candidate’s refusal to take a stand on the act, the campaign sent out a spokeswoman who said that Romney supported “pay equity” and is “not looking to change current law,” a position that puts him at odds with an overwhelming majority of Republicans in Congress.
Then there is the not unimportant matter of whom Romney picks to be his running mate. Among the current leaders in the veepstakes are Ryan and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker.
Ryan’s budget plan doesn’t merely discriminate against middle-class and poor women, it discriminates against everyone, while Walker, who faces a June recall, has signed a law making it tougher for women to sue in state court over pay discrimination.
As Talking Points Memo reporter Benjy Sarlin noted, Romney’s ham-handed moves over the Lilly Ledbetter Act were a classic example of what is becoming a familiar maneuver: Projecting his own vulnerabilities onto his opponent, in this instance the fact that he is polling extremely poorly among the independent women who will determine whether Obama serves a second term and he goes home to play with his car elevator.
which is the name of his mountain hideaway, appears on Mondays.