Saturday, August 11, 2012

Return of the oldest trick in the book

A NEW Mitt Romney campaign ad playing on TV screens in some battleground states seeks to drive a wedge between old-guard Democratic constituencies by reviving welfare as a campaign issue, shrewdly tip-toeing up to the racial line without crossing it. It's an old wine in a skin that's not that new, a sad tribal move to revive old animosities, and the latest evidence of desperation from Team Romney as the campaign winds toward its conclusion 87 days from today.

This slick new ad says — falsely — that on July 12, President Obama dismantled the work-for-welfare program that was a hallmark of the Clinton administration, and that Obama had dropped the work requirements needed to gain welfare benefits.

“Under Obama’s plan, you wouldn’t have to work and wouldn’t have to train for a job. They just send you your welfare check.”

The ad’s underlying, hardly-subliminal intention is more obvious than its creators might think. Implicit in the images — chief among them, President Clinton signing work-to-welfare into law in 1996 — is a sub rosa appeal to the white working-class voters Clinton successfully courted that year, and whom Romney needs to stay (or be) competitive in this year’s election.

But the ad is challenged by the stubborn things called facts. Rest assured, the tooth fairy is not loose in America. The directive marking Obama’s change, issued by the Department of Health and Human Services, doesn’t eliminate the requirement for work or training for work; nor does it automatically drop a welfare check in the mail.

In the July 12 directive, The Department of Health and Human Services announced the state waiver program from work requirements under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Program (TANF), a waiver plan intended to give states more leeway in tailoring work-to-welfare programs to the needs specific to their residents, rather than being forced to abide by a single standard solution.

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When the directive was released, the terms of engagements were clear: states would be denied or their waivers rescinded if they fail to meet the guidelines of the law.

“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,” a memorandum attached to the directive said.

If that weren’t clear enough, the memorandum said the directive “reflects the Department’s commitment to provide states, tribes, and territories with more flexibility to innovate in the TANF program with the goal of helping more families find jobs and move toward self-sufficiency.”

Want more clarity? “[I]f a governor proposes a plan that undercuts the work requirements established in welfare reform, the plan will be rejected.” “No plan that undercuts the goal of moving people from welfare to work will be considered or approved,” HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius wrote in a July 20 letter to the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. “We will continue to hold states accountable for moving people from welfare to work.”

That last sentence indicates that gutting welfare reform was never intended by HHS or the Obama administration; the legislative landmark of welfare-to-work wouldn’t be ended, just tweaked for purposes of giving more flexibility to the states — something that Republican governors (including Mitt Romney himself!) had wanted for a long time.

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BUT IF facts are stubborn things, so is the mounting desperation of a Romney campaign hoping to change the narrative. The language of the new Romney campaign ad tidily ignores what’s actually happening. Its thirty seconds are larded with innuendo and (the only truthful descriptor) lies.

And it very shrewdly inches up to the line of framing welfare as a racial issue — the same line that Newt Gingrich brazenly crossed back in January when he called Obama “the best food-stamp president in American history” and dared to offer to go before the NAACP (in his mind, no doubt, like Reagan going to meet Gorbachev in Reykjavik) to tell black people they should prefer jobs to food stamps.

That fact isn’t altered by the fact that the ad has no black people in it; it’s a postmodern, passive-aggressive way to reawaken an old trope of racial animus, and to do it in a campaign that’s already seen its share of dogwhistle politics. Maybe that’s why Team Romney has retained Gingrich’s services to help drive home the campaign’s erroneous point on welfare reform.

The ad signs off with the boss’ obligatory blessing: “I’m Mitt Romney and I approved this message.” That fact alone means one of two things: either Romney knew the contents of the ad are untruthful, or he didn’t bother to check and, ergo, didn’t care. Either way, the Republican candidate has sent another telling signal of his campaign: that he expects indifference to or antipathy for the truth to be a valuable tactic in the service of his presidential strategy.

Image credits: Romney ad screengrab: Romney 2012. Sebelius: Executive Office of the President (public domain). Romney logo: Romney 2012 campaign.

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