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Romney’s Utterly Mendacious (and Effective) New ‘Welfare Queen’ Attack

“Tough on Kids; Weak on Work.” That was Bill Clinton’s regular and emphatic judgment on the Republican attitude on welfare reform as he vetoed two congressional GOP bills before cutting the deal that became the landmark 1996 law.

This was no mere rhetoric. As a welfare policy wonk in the 1990s I can attest to the fact that Republican interest in welfare reform was focused on everything other than work: punishing illegitimacy, creating absolute time limits for eligibility, devolving responsibility for the indigent to the states, and saving money for the federal government. If work requirements helped meet these goals, Republicans were supportive, but it was hardly their main interest, particularly if it required “making work pay” for welfare recipients via support for the working poor.

That’s one of several reasons the new Mitt Romney campaign ad attacking Barack Obama for an alleged “gutting” of the 1996 law by “dropping work requirements” is so mendacious and hypocritical.

The most immediate outrage is that the ad’s central claim is, to use a technical term, a lie. The Obama administration has not changed the architecture of the 1996 welfare reform law at all. What it has done, as a response to repeated requests by governors from both parties for flexibility in administering the law—a demand Republicans, including Mitt Romney, have been making from practically the moment it was signed—is to say it was open to offering waivers that exclude states from precisely those regulations that inhibit rather than encourage placing welfare recipients in jobs.

The July 12 memo from HHS Office of Family Assistance Director Earl Johnson which announced the waiver policy is reasonably clear about what the agency will and will not consider:

HHS is encouraging states to consider new, more effective ways to meet the goals of TANF [Temporary Aid to Needy Families], particularly helping parents successfully prepare for, find, and retain employment. Therefore, HHS is issuing this information memorandum to notify states of the Secretary’s willingness to exercise her waiver authority under section 1115 of the Social Security Act to allow states to test alternative and innovative strategies, policies, and procedures that are designed to improve employment outcomes for needy families….
HHS will only consider approving waivers relating to the work participation requirements that make changes intended to lead to more effective means of meeting the work goals of TANF.

Elsewhere in the memo—and in public statements by HHS officials—it’s made abundantly clear that the work focus and time limits for assistance that were imposed by the 1996 law will not and in their judgment cannot be waived.

So what about the Romney ad’s claim that “under Obama’s plan you wouldn’t have to work and you wouldn’t have to train for a job. They’d just send you your welfare check”? It represents a bundle of outright fabrications. There is no “Obama’s plan,” no abolition of work or training requirements, no return to a personal entitlement to assistance, and no unconditional assistance. The administration’s actual offer to the states of limited flexibility in the means of achieving the law’s unchanging goals is in no way a departure from past policies under either Democratic or Republican administrations. In fact, it explicitly tracks repeated Republican demands! In the early prehistory of welfare reform, Republicans tried to turn “welfare” into a block grant that states could have used pretty much whatever they wanted.

(Indeed, Bill Clinton vetoed one such Republican-passed law before signing the 1996 act in question. Generally, Romney’s campaign may have miscalculated somewhat by including in the new ad an image of Clinton signing the 1996 law. That has liberated the Big Dog himself to blast the ad’s assertions in scorching detail.)

Some may say campaign ads that distort and even lie about an opponent’s record or proposals are standard operating procedure these days. Is there any reason this ad should be taken more seriously?

The answer is yes. Aside from the fact that the ad is no mere feint, but is already in heavy rotation on the airwaves and is being echoed by Romney himself on the campaign trail, it makes unmistakably audible the main, recurring conservative “dog whistle” about Obama: He’s the unreconstructed old-school lefty who has unmoored his party from its Clinton Era centrist reforms and is determined to loot virtuous middle class taxpayers on behalf of shiftless poor and minority folk. Up until now, conservatives have engaged in the politically perilous tactic of demonizing the working poor: the “lucky duckies” who benefit from the refundable Earned Income Tax Credit; the wage-earners who don’t currently qualify for health insurance under Medicaid but would receive help under the Affordable Care Act; and lurking behind all these would-be “looters,” the struggling new homeowners whom conservatives so often blame for taking out mortgages they couldn’t afford and thus triggering the housing and financial crises.

Americans tend to admire the working poor, so this tack tends to produce an ambivalent reaction beyond the GOP’s conservative base. But by shifting its focus to the old conservative target of non-working “welfare bums,” the Romney campaign is on safer ground, assuming, as you should, that they don’t care if the ad reopens the racial wounds and grievances that welfare reform appeared to partially lay to rest. A line from a memo released by Romney campaign policy director Lanhee Chan in defense of the ad makes its intended audience very plain, calling the imaginary new Obama welfare policy “a kick in the gut to the millions of hard-working middle-class taxpayers struggling in today’s economy, working more for less but always preferring self-sufficiency to a government handout.” It’s the ancient “welfare queen” meme designed to encourage the non-college educated white voters whose maximum support Romney needs to overcome its exceptional weakness among minority and more highly-educated voters to see in Obama all the old hobgoblins that drove them out of the Democratic coalition to begin with.

It may be a sign of Romney’s weakness that he and his team are now willing to openly play with such racial and cultural dynamite. Or maybe it was the idea all along.