When Heritage Action, the new lobbying arm of the Heritage Foundation, scored the votes of House Republicans last year, a furor erupted. Republicans were incensed because their votes on a number of small, nice-sounding issues were counted, often reducing their conservative rating. A classic example was the firefighter grant program that 147 House Republicans voted to favor with $320 million last summer, though the program has been found to be ineffective and wasteful.

But Heritage Action decided, quite correctly, that votes on relatively insignificant issues like this one can be telling. In this case, House Republicans were part of the spending problem in Washington they vowed to correct.

Which leads us to Mitt Romney’s disclosure Wednesday that he favors indexing the minimum wage to inflation, guaranteeing it rises almost every year. A small issue in the context of the presidential race, yes, but a very telling one nonetheless.

Romney’s embrace of insuring the minimum wage increases, currently at $7.25, was surprising for a candidate who insists he is a reliable conservative. It was major mistake on his part for three reasons.

First, from an ideological standpoint, what was he thinking? Has he missed the decades long discussion among conservatives about the disastrous impact of the minimum wage? It has eliminated jobs – hundreds of thousands of them – for young persons on the low rungs of employment. The ill effects have been felt especially by African American youth.

Not only that, but the minimum wage represents a government intrusion in the economy. Free market economists, most notably Thomas Sowell, have been making this point for years.

Any self-identified conservative should be aware of this, even if the media has given it minimal coverage. And Romney’s support for jacking up the minimum wage annually only makes his apostasy worse.

Second, his timing was, to be charitable, politically clumsy. The day before, Romney had been trounced by Rick Santorum in two caucuses and one primary. This was more than an embarrassment. It showed once more that Romney has failed to persuade most conservatives he is indeed one of them. Instead, his message is one conservatives continue to find unconvincing.

So his response was to adopt a position that conservatives, who dominate the Republican presidential race, are bound to take exception to. Again, what was he thinking?

Third, for a candidate as cautious as Romney, minimum wage is an issue he didn’t need to address, much less endorse a scheme to boost it. This is what in basketball is known as an unforced error.

It’s understandable Romney defends the Massachusetts health care plan he helped create. It was the centerpiece of his governorship. And, given his wealth, it may make sense for him to back a tax plan that doesn’t cut the income tax rate for the rich. But an ever rising minimum wage? Please.

Is Romney more conservative than he sounds? That’s been the belief of at least some of his defenders, including me. Now I’m not so sure.

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