Republican presidential challenger Mitt Romney this week picked a fight with President Obama that is potentially divisive in the extreme sense of the word, the kind that surfaces prejudices and resentments and therefore promises, from a strategic standpoint, to be terrifically effective in driving otherwise complacent voters to the polls. And there was just no way that Newt Gingrich, the father of modern us-versus-them politics, was going to sit out a conversation like that.
So there was the former GOP House speaker on Wednesday, dog whistle in hand, holding a conference call with journalists to discuss how the "radical" president was in the process of secretly trying to undo the work mandate of the 1996 welfare reform law as part of a liberal plot to pad the welfare rolls. The call was sanctioned by the Romney campaign, which touted some of his remarks in a press release.
Romney, and now Gingrich, allege that the Obama administration is in the process of waiving the work requirements in the law to make it far easier for recipients to collect benefits without working, actively looking for a job or attending job training classes. Why would Obama want to make so seemingly counterproductive a change to current work-for-welfare policy, which polls show to be popular with Americans?
"I think on the hard left, there is an unending desire to create a dependent America," Gingrich explained. "There is a deep repudiation of the middle class work ethic, and there is a sense of noblesse oblige to take care of the poor by giving them money. ... It's not just that Obama's a radical, but the people he appoints are even more radical, and I don't think they thought it would be a big deal. I think they thought they were being very clever. They thought that this wouldn't be noticed by anybody. They used the language of the right to cover up a reform of the left and all of a sudden it blew up on them."
Needless to say, the Obama campaign disputes this interpretation, as does the investigative website Politifact, which found Romney's charges to be untrue. And Ron Haskins, a former GOP congressional aide who helped write the reform law, told National Public Radio recently, "There's no plausible scenario under which it really constitutes a serious attack on welfare reform."
But fact-checking also disproved Gingrich's claim during the primaries that Obama is "the food stamp president" because "more people have been put on food stamps by Barack Obama than any president in American history." The remark brought a GOP debate audience to its feet in Charleston, and Gingrich went on to win the South Carolina primary. Candidate Gingrich also suggested that poor children lack a work ethic and should be given jobs as school janitors, and that "the African-American community should demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps."
Ironically, the HHS memo laying out the new welfare policy describes an aim not to relieve people of their work obligations under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families law, but to ease a federal constraint on the states - something Romney, Gingrich and just about every last conservative today supports. Under the heading "Purpose," George Sheldon, HHS acting assistant secretary, writes:
"HHS is encouraging states to consider new, more effective ways to meet the goals of TANF, particularly helping parents successfully prepare for, find, and retain employment. Therefore, HHS is issuing this information memorandum to notify states of the Secretary's willingness to exercise her waiver authority ... to allow states to test alternative and innovative strategies, policies, and procedures that are designed to improve employment outcomes for needy families."
The memo warns that HHS will require states to develop performance targets and measureable outcomes to prove that they are boosting the rate of employment among welfare recipients - all, apparently, part of the "clever" ruse Gingrich talked about.
But it is not going to matter a bit to Romney or Gingrich that the document suggests the exact opposite of what they are charging. A good campaign issue is a good campaign issue. They are not talking about what's actually in the memo, they are conjuring an image of an unmotivated and ungrateful underclass - perhaps even a predominately black one? -- that wants to live off the hard-earned tax dollars of others.
If you doubt it, here's the voiceover in Romney's new ad, suggesting that under the new Obama policy, "You wouldn't have to work and wouldn't have to train for a job. They just send you your welfare check."
Now, get mad and vote.