Obama finds a “lunch-pail” issue

Expect to hear more about Lilly Ledbetter’s claim for equal pay, how the Supreme Court shot it down, and how John McCain voted against a legislative fix.

Insofar as Barack Obama’s problems winning white working-class voters in some states have to do with his cultural “otherness,” there isn’t much he can do about it. But insofar as they have to do with his not being identified with “lunch-pail” issues, he can … talk about lunch-pail issues.

Consider Obama’s pitch to “working women” in Albuquerque three weeks ago:

Now Senator McCain is an honorable man, and we respect his service. But when you look at our records and our plans on issues that matter to working women, the choice could not be clearer.

It starts with equal pay. 62 percent of working women in America earn half — or more than half — of their family’s income. But women still earn only 77 cents for every dollar earned by men. In 2008, you’d think that Washington would be united in its determination to fight for equal pay. That’s why I was proud to co-sponsor the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act, which would have reversed last year’s Supreme Court decision, which made it more difficult for women to challenge pay discrimination on the job.

But Senator McCain thinks the Supreme Court got it right. He opposed the Fair Pay Restoration Act. He suggested that the reason women don’t have equal pay isn’t discrimination on the job — it’s because they need more education and training. That’s just totally wrong. Lilly Ledbetter’s problem was not that she was somehow unqualified or unprepared for higher-paying positions. She most certainly was, and by all reports she was an excellent employee. Her problem was that her employer paid her less than men who were doing the exact same work.

John McCain just has it wrong. He said the Fair Pay Restoration Act “opens us up to lawsuits for all kinds of problems.” But I can’t think of any problem more important than making sure that women get equal pay for equal work. It’s a matter of equality. It’s a matter of fairness. That’s why I stood up for equal pay in the Illinois State Senate, and helped pass a law to give 330,000 more women protection from paycheck discrimination. That’s why I’ve been fighting to pass legislation in the Senate, so that employers don’t get away with discriminating against hardworking women like Lilly Ledbetter. And that’s why I’ll continue to stand up for equal pay as President. Senator McCain won’t, and that’s a real difference in this election.

Avi Zenilman and Carrie Budoff Brown interpret this as an attempt by Obama to “downplay” Roe v. Wade. But the other way to look at the problem is that it appeals to a different group of voters than a speech about Roe would be expected to move. No doubt Ledbetter is less controversial than Roe; I’m sure there are more women in favor of banning abortion than there are women opposed to equal pay. But why should we think of this as a zero-sum game; as Zenilman and Brown (rather grudgingly) acknowledge, in Obama’s recent speech to Clinton supporters he explicitly linked the two:

And let’s be clear, the Supreme Court’s ruling on equal pay is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what’s at stake in this election. Usually, when we talk about the Court, it’s in the context of reproductive rights and Roe v. Wade. And make no mistake about it, that’s a critical issue in this election. Sen. McCain has made it abundantly clear that he wants to appoint justices like Roberts and Alito — and that he hopes to see Roe overturned. Well, I stand by my votes against confirming Justices Roberts and Alito. And I’ve made it equally clear that I will never back down in defending a woman’s right to choose.

But the Supreme Court also affects women’s lives in so many other ways — from decisions on equal pay, to workplace discrimination, to Title IX, to domestic violence, to civil rights and workers’ rights. And the question we face in this election is whether we’ll have judges who demonstrate sound judgment and empathy, who understand how law operates in our daily lives, who are committed to upholding the values at the core of our Constitution — or judges who put ideology before justice, with our fundamental rights as the first casualty.

As Z & B also point out, the problem with Roe as a campaign issue is that McCain has, so far, successfully fudged his position on reproductive choice, and even those who know he’s anti-choice don’t really believe Roe is likely to be overturned. (They could be wrong about that, of course.) Ledbetter is a different sort of issue: due to a Republican filibuster that McCain supported, it’s still the law of the land that discrimination victims like Lilly Ledbetter are S.O.o.L. It’s obvious both that Obama will appoint judges less likely to make such decisions and push for legislation to undo some of the damage already done, while McCain will do the opposite. Moreover, Lilly Ledbetter isn’t an abstraction; she’s a real, live person.

Democrats have tended to underinvest in the work of finding concrete instances of injustice directly tied to specific Republican policies; in politics, anecdotes trump statistics. The more Obama talks about Lilly Ledbetter and people like her, the better.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com