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The Welfare Card And The Post-Truth Campaign

It so happens that when Mitt Romney came to Ohio yesterday that I was able to catch one of his appearances, speaking to hundreds of coal miners in Beallsville. As expected, Romney hit President Obama for his “war on coal” (never mind that Romney in 2003 stood outside a coal-fired plan in Salem, Mass. and said that it “kills people.”) But he got his biggest applause during this riff: 

I want you to know I heard something the other day that really surprised me... What I heard is that the president is taking the work requirement out of welfare. (Boos.) Yeah. We value work, our society which celebrates hard work, we look to a government to make it easier for jobs to be created and people to go to work. We do not look for a government that tries to find ways to provide for people who are not willing to work. And so I’m gonna put work back into welfare and make sure able-bodied people can get jobs.

Romney proceeded straight from this into a retelling of Obama’s “you didn’t built that” line, but even that did not get the applause the welfare riff did. After the speech, several in the audience told me that their favorite part had been Romney’s calling out Obama for weakening welfare work requirements. Yes, one of the more depressing parts of the job of being a political reporter is watching an audience fully absorb a blatant and knowing lie. Which is, of course, what this is. Countless factcheckers—here is one of many—have unequivocally rejected the assertion that Obama has ended the work requirement. His administration has instead granted more leeway to states, including several with Republican governors, to explore new ways to get people onto welfare into jobs, with the proviso that their new approaches must increase the share of recipients with jobs.

But this has not stopped Romney (the son of a pro-safety net former HUD secretary!) or Paul Ryan, who is also using the line on the trail. Meanwhile, the campaign has launched two ads with the welfare charge, which are running in heavy circulation. Clearly, the campaign has reason to believe the attack is working, and why not? It’s no secret that working-class Americans deeply resent those just below them on the economic ladder whom they see as getting undeserved assistance; it’s also no secret that politicians have been especially effective at stoking this resentment among white working-class voters, such as the all-white audience in Beallsville, toward an unseen nonwhite other.

But at least in the glory-days of welfare-bashing, the attacks had some grounding in reality—the system had grown rapidly was in need of some sort of reform. Now, at a time of drastically reduced welfare rolls, the attack is utterly unfounded. And Romney just keeps using it, at stop after stop, in ad after ad. How can this be possible? Well, maybe because very few of my colleagues in the press seem all that troubled by it. Unless I’ve missed it, none of the national papers or networks or Buzzfeeders have done a comprehensive report on Romney’s persistence in playing the welfare card. It’s as if it was enough to have the factcheckers offer their initial scolding, but after that, hey, anything goes. I saw no mention in dispatches from yesterday of Romney’s successful use of the welfare line in Beallsville—instead, the stories were dominated by Romney’s declaration of outrage, later in the day, over Obama’s campaign of “anger and hate.” This referred, apparently, to everything from the Obama SuperPAC’s boundary-pushing ad about the death of the wife of a steelworker laid off by Bain Capital (which has barely aired on TV) and Joe Biden’s use of the word “unchained” in talking about Wall Street reform in southern Virginia. A psychoanalyst might see in Romney’s outrage over campaign excess more than a little Freudian projection. But a smart political analyst would settle for the more mundane explanation that Romney is seeking to distract attention from his own very effective and mendacious offensive with welfare. Though I’m not really sure that distraction was necessary, since as far as I can tell we were already letting it pass unnoticed.

*Addendum, 3:30 p.m.: I should give credit to Dave Roberts of Grist for coining the "post-truth" term in a terrific piece for Grist back in April 2011. The phrase has now seeped so deeply into our vernacular to describe contemporary political mendacity that I did not realize how recent its invention was.

*Also, a further thought on all this to make the point that I generally have a pretty high bar for outrage over campaign rhetoric: when Newt Gingrich called Obama the "food-stamp president," I didn't think it was as terrible as many others did. Yes, it was a term loaded with obvious insinuations, but in contrast to Romney's welfare lie, it was actually based in a semblance of reality. Food stamp rolls have gone up a lot under Obama (continuing their rise under Bush.) We can argue about why that it is, and whether or not it's a good thing. But there's something there to debate. With Romney and welfare, there is nothing but pure, cynical fabrication out of nothing.

follow me on Twitter @AlecMacGillis