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The Big Lie: The President has “gutted” the work requirement from welfare reform.

The Truth: Mitt Romney is attacking a policy he has supported that encourages more welfare recipients to work, for the express purpose of provoking racial resentment.

In 1976, when Ronald Reagan attacked a mostly fictionalized “welfare queen” in a Cadillac, there was no doubt what he was invoking. Some call it the “Southern Strategy.” Our Joe Conason calls it “blowing the racial foghorn.”

But implications were clear. “Those people” are trying to take your money.

In 2005, Mitt Romney signed a letter from the Republican Governor’s Association that asked President Bush for “Increased waiver authority” in implementing Transitional Assistance to Needy Families program, more commonly known as “welfare.”

In 2012, President Obama gave five governors, two of them Republicans, more flexibility in how they managed their welfare rolls, so long as the changes resulted in at least “20 percent increases in the number of people getting work.” This is precisely the policy Romney sought.

In 2012, struggling to find an issue that voters cared about and seeking to avoid a report that suggested Mitt Romney would raise taxes on the middle class while cutting them for the rich, the GOP’s presumptive nominee accused the President of “gutting the work requirements” in welfare.

All the usual fact checking organizations declared this attack completely false. President Bill Clinton who signed the bill into the law has called the claim, “especially disappointing.” Republican Joe Scarborough said on MSNBC’s Morning Joe:  “It’s just completely false.”

Still Romney has run three ads that made these same claims while making a promise to “put work back in welfare” a staple of his stump speech.

Why does he keep repeating this entirely invented charge? It seems to be helping him in swing states. Having vowed to make this election entirely a referendum on the economy, Romney has found that voters don’t trust him to do any better than President Obama has done. This may be because of the doubts encouraged by Obama ads targeting his record at Bain Capital or his secrecy about his own tax returns. Unable to make a convincing argument, Romney has to rely on issues that divide or cause conflict — also know as wedge issues.

Romney first edged toward a wedge-based campaign when he took the president’s comments about who built America’s roads and bridges out of context. But the most effective wedge issues tie identity politics to an issue. That’s why welfare is such an appealing wedge. Who’s on welfare? “Them.”

Though the vast majority of welfare recipients are white, how many people were thinking of a white “welfare queen” tooling along in her Cadillac?

The chief suspect in bringing this issue to the Romney campaign is Newt Gingrich, who immediately leaped into the new debate over welfare to attack the President. Gingrich spent much of the primary calling President Obama “the food stamp president,” another racial foghorn blast. He was the Speaker of the House when welfare reform passed and must know that the accusation he’s making is hollow.

Mitt Romney believes he’s entitled to his own facts about welfare, taxes and Medicare, issues that now make up most of his campaign. But Medicare and taxes are two issues where he has to make the facts suit his campaign. Welfare is an issue he wandered into for one reason: resentment. Getting more people off welfare as soon as possible is the whole point of the president’s plan. Arguing otherwise is fatuous and shameful.

This is the kind of Big Lie that makes decent Republicans embarrassed. But decency isn’t what Mitt Romney is pursuing these days.

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