The welfare issue is back

Mickey Kaus Columnist
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“Our most effective ad is our welfare ad”–Romney ad strategist:

1) Told you so;

2) It was clear at an Atlantic/National Journal forum in Tampa this morning that the MSM is very proud of itself for abandoning traditional “false balance” and declaring in its own voice that Romney’s ads are wrong. A front page news (not opinion) article in the New York Times simply asserts:

The Romney campaign is airing an advertisement falsely charging that Mr. Obama has “quietly announced” plans to eliminate work and job training requirements for welfare beneficiaries …

The only trouble with this inspiring reclamation of journalistic manhood is that … Mr. Obama did quietly announce what certainly seemed like plans to eliminate work and job training requirements for many welfare beneficiaries.  Bring back false balance.

3)  Romney’s ads are overstated and oversimplified–some of them say Obama has ended the work requirement, not that he plans to end it.** But they get at a decidedly non-trivial point, which is that Obama’s department of Health and Human Services is undermining at least two aspects of the historic 1996 welfare reform law: a) That recipients should be required to “Work First,” at the best job they can get, rather than be paid to prepare for a better job that may or may not materialize down the line; and b) that we want to get welfare recipients into jobs quickly because that’s the best way to get them out of poverty–but we also want to require work to deter would-be recipients from making the bad choices that would put them onto welfare in the first place.

4) I didn’t think Obama supporters would resort to crudely arguing that talking about welfare is really talking about race–a historic loser complaint for them. I was wrong. Maybe voters suddenly love being told that their concern for a work ethic makes them racist, and that legitimate misgivings about the dole–voiced, in the past, by Bill Moyers and Piven and Cloward, not to mention Bill Clinton–are really a “dog whistle” to bigots.

5) Would a “dog whistle” tactic even make any sense? As John Ellis notes, it can’t be about white working class men–Romney’s already got them in his pocket. The ads are more likely to appeal to disillusioned women who voted for Obama last time–and to anyone who thought the welfare issue had been settled, or who worries more broadly that Obama was not the neoliberal he appeared to be in 2008 (when he ran ads boasting about … slashing the welfare rolls). If there are millions of racists in the electorate, it’s hard to believe they were seriously thinking of voting for Obama until … wait! the dog whistle!**

6) Bill Clinton’s most effective ads were anti-welfare ads–he promised to “end welfare as we know it.” Was he a race-baiter? As noted, Obama ran ads claiming “[h]e passed a law to move people from welfare to work, slashed the rolls by eighty percent.” Was Obama a racist too? Or is the new, MSM-enforced rule that “one can’t even mention welfare in political advertising any more?”  Unless you are praising it, of course. Thank God we got rid of “false balance.”

7) The question of giving cash to able-bodied people regardless of whether they work is a pretty basic values issue, one that transcends race and class.*** Voters traditionally, and appropriately, judge candidates by their values–values being one clue as to how politicians will react to currently unknown problems that arise in the future. Clinton recognized this–he resurrected liberalism’s reputation by answering the question clearly in favor of work. If Obama is now even subtly breaking the Clintonian bargain (after suggesting he wouldn’t), that’s a big deal.

The one point on which Romney seems off-key is his charge that Obama approved the waivers in order to “shore up his base.” That would be insane–even if there are large numbers of pro-welfare voters out there, which would be news, they’re almost surely voters Obama has already locked up. Nor did Obama publicize the waiver decision to his base or anyone else. Meanwhile, the waivers risked alienating a far larger group that almost certainly includes the undecided voters Obama desperately needs to get.

From a purely political perspective, the waivers were a spectacular screw-up.  Essentially, Obama may have lost his presidency to make a few antipoverty bureaucrats at HHS happy.


**–Even here Romney could argue that Obama’s HHS “ended” the requirement that states require work. But the ad suggests recipients are no longer required to work–something that would only happen if states apply for the waivers and if HHS approves them (as it clearly planned to do in some cases).

***– Thomas Edsall approvingly quotes Steven Law, a strategist for the conservative Crossroads USA SuperPac, for the idea that welfare is “more of an economic issue than a values issue” because unemployed workers know there aren’t enough jobs out there (so more people on welfare is just more evidence of the sour Obama economy). But unemployed workers still value the work ethic, and even now may be troubled by the idea that Obama is starting to make lots of permanent exceptions. The HHS officials who approved the waivers gave no indication that they were doing so in response to the high unemployment rate–indeed, some of them were part of the liberal lobby that proposed many of the same exceptions in 2005, when the economy was still growing.  It’s a values issue.

Mickey Kaus