Mitt Romney has long boasted – with dubious accuracy but laudable pride – that his father George marched against segregation with Martin Luther King, Jr. But the Romney campaign of 2012 is dishonoring those filial sentiments as its strategy of racial polarization unfolds – with the latest and most blatant example emerging in a blatantly false attack on the Obama Administration’s welfare policies.
Suspicions that Romney might seek to inflame racist anger toward America’s first black president began to arise when his campaign strategist Stuart Stevens – a scion of Mississippi’s Republican Party – coined the slogan “Obama Isn’t Working,” which sounded to some like code for ethnic stereotyping. Others charitably attributed the gaffe to mere insensitivity typical of the Republican campaign’s insular, monochromatic staff.
Then came the candidate’s speech to the NAACP convention, which seemed to have been drafted to elicit booing from the African-American audience – a reaction instantly framed by Rush Limbaugh and the right-wing propaganda machine as an assault by blacks on Romney simply “because he is white.” Nevertheless some observers, including members of the NAACP, still gave him credit merely for appearing before what he had to expect would be a skeptical if not hostile audience.
But now the Romney campaign – and the candidate himself – have seized upon welfare, the classical subject of racial stereotype, to divide the country against Obama with false accusations. With a new political advertisement claiming that the president has tried to eliminate work requirements from the Transitional Assistance to Needy Families program, or TANF, Romney and his allies are directly appealing to the ugliest emotions of their Tea Party base.
This isn’t a muted dog-whistle. It’s a deafening foghorn.
The supposed basis for the Romney claim is a recent presidential directive permitting state governors to seek a “waiver” from the specific bureaucratic requirements of the welfare reform passed by Congress and signed by President Clinton in 1996. But as Clinton himself noted in a sharp response to Romney’s ad, Republican governors in Utah and Nevada originally requested that waiver.
Worse still, Romney sought precisely the same kind of flexibility in rules when he was governor of Massachusetts in 2005 (along with one of the Fox News hucksters now supporting his campaign, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee). Back then, Romney signed a Republican Governors Association letter to Bill Frist, the Senate Majority Leader, pleading for “state flexibility” implementing TANF, with “increased waiver authority.”
Even Newt Gingrich, the former House Speaker and Romney antagonist who popped up to back the welfare attack, was forced to admit on national television that there is “no proof” for the charge that the Obama administration is seeking to “gut” TANF work requirements. There is substantial evidence, however, that the changes were designed to improve and even strengthen welfare-to-work.
Perhaps stung by Clinton’s fierce statement, which described the Romney ad as “untrue,” “misleading” and “disappointing,” the Republican candidate has followed up by pointing out that Obama, as an Illinois state senator, once voiced doubts about welfare reform. But the truth is that the president reassessed that view openly and courageously in 2008, when he said that TANF’s results were better than he had anticipated – and that work should be a central part of any government assistance program for poor families.
But this is not a policy dispute, because there is clearly no significant difference in policy between Clinton and Obama – and no real cause for concern that these new regulations would endanger welfare reform. There can be only one reason for the Romney campaign to focus on this tangential issue – the same old racial strategy, now used to recruit blue-collar white voters who otherwise find their candidate’s plutocratic profile repellent.