Lying is endemic to politics, but Mitt Romney may have pioneered a new low this week. His TV ad attacking President Obama's welfare policy collides with empirical fact, but that's not the worst of it. Aimed at working-class whites, it also implicitly traffics in toxic racial stereotypes.
Romney tried doggedly to campaign on the economy in the belief that the recession would catapult him into the White House. But that strategy clearly isn't working; Obama has proved resilient in swing-state polls, most notably in Ohio. No Republican has ever won the presidency without winning Ohio. And Romney has been underperforming among working-class whites, which is a major reason why he trails in Ohio and other key states, including Pennsylvania.
Which brings us to the welfare ad, a dishonest and pernicious bit of business.
The ad begins with praise for the 1996 federal law that basically requires welfare recipients to find work. However, the narrator says, "Obama quietly announced a plan to gut welfare reform by dropping work requirements. 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, and welfare-to-work goes back to being plain old welfare."
Romney himself has echoed the ad while on the stump: "President Obama in the last few days has tried to reverse that accomplishment [welfare reform] by taking the work requirement out of welfare. If I'm president, I'll put work back in welfare." Later, on Fox News, he said it again: "What the president is doing is saying that we are going to take out the requirement for work. It is a big mistake."
When I listen to Romney on this issue and see that ad, I am reminded of what the writer Mary McCarthy famously said of Lillian Hellman: "Every word she writes is a lie, including and and the."
Consider what actually happened. Earlier this year, the governors of five states told the Obama administration that the federal rules were too rigid; they had their own ideas about how to move people from welfare to work. Would Obama be willing to grant waivers from the federal rules to give the states more flexibility to achieve the same goals? In a July 12 letter, the Department of Health and Human Services said yes.
Obama didn't "gut welfare reform." He's not "dropping work requirements." Quite the contrary: He's keeping the work requirement while ceding more power to the states - which is exactly what Republicans always say they want the feds to do. Indeed, the Republican governors of Utah and Nevada were instrumental in pushing for the federal waivers.
It's false to say that Obama wants to "just send you your welfare check," because the HHS memo says the opposite. The feds "will only consider approving waivers . . . that make changes intended to lead to more effective means of meeting the work goals." The memo warned: "Waivers that weaken or undercut welfare reform will not be affirmed."
So Obama has actually advanced two GOP goals: Republicans believe in moving welfare recipients into the workplace, and they believe that states should be allowed to run programs the way they want to. In fact, seven years ago, Republican governors asked Congress for more leeway on welfare, noting, "Increased waiver authority ... and the ability to coordinate state programs are all important aspects of moving recipients from welfare to work." Heading the list of those who signed that request was the then-governor of Massachusetts - Mitt Romney.
What a shame that the GOP nominee has seen fit to slum in this manner. It's bad enough that the welfare ad bears no resemblance to factual reality. What's worse is that he has dredged up the racially coded tactics that Republicans employed so often in the '80s and '90s, including Ronald Reagan's loaded references to "welfare queens" and George H.W. Bush's TV ads equating crime with blacks. Romney is traveling the same low road, tapping the old stereotypes about how Democrats supposedly want to shovel taxpayer money to shiftless welfare recipients - now with a black president wielding the shovel.
In Romney's defense, I doubt he wanted to go this route. But the economy is not dire enough to propel him to the presidency - indeed, the jobless rate in Ohio is lower than the national average - and working-class whites seem hesitant about backing a one-percenter who favors more tax cuts for the rich. Hence his need to try something new; if he can't make voters like him, perhaps he can debase his opponent.
But the welfare ad diminishes us all. In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Every violation of truth is not only a sort of suicide in the liar, but is a stab at the health of human society."