Class War and Romney’s Welfare Counterattack

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Photo: Win McNamee/2012 Getty Images

Last month, the Department of Health and Human Services announced that states could submit new proposals to move welfare recipients to work, noting that it “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 pair of Republican governors applied for the waivers. This week, Mitt Romney’s comically mendacious campaign has turned this into a massive plan by Barack Obama to bring back welfare:

The political gist of this attack, like the “you didn’t build that” campaign, is to manufacture — out of thin air, if necessary — a way of turning the class debate around.

Obama has been attacking Romney as an advocate of top-down economics who would revisit the failed Bush-era ideology of regressive tax cuts and lax regulation that led to enormous income gains to the rich but income stagnation to the middle class. One startling thing about the campaign is how little Romney has done to prepare himself for such an obvious line of attack. George W. Bush crafted his entire campaign around preemptively defanging the accusation of succoring the rich. He cast himself as a brush-clearin’, pickup-drivin’ son of toil, and relentlessly insisted his tax plan was primarily aimed at poor waitresses and other low-income people.

Romney has taken no steps at all to put a middle-class sheen on his background, and he's allowed Democrats to define him by his wealth and heartlessness. He seems to have fallen into the trap of believing that the sentiments about wealth that prevail among movement conservatives reflect the beliefs of Americans as a whole. Romney did try to protect himself from charges of delivering the rich a large tax cut. He left his tax plan vague, promising a rate cut (to please conservatives) but also to close enough loopholes to avoid giving the rich a net tax cut. But this turned out to be mathematically impossible, which left him in the dangerous position of having, by mathematical necessity, proposed a middle-class tax hike to accompany a tax cut on the rich.

In place of his lackluster defensive exertions, Romney is instead mounting a hyper-belligerent offensive. If Obama attacks him for redistributing from the middle class to the rich, Romney will paint Obama as redistributing from the middle class to the poor. That is the subtext of Romney’s “you didn’t build that” attack, and the even more explicit subtext of his welfare attack. Obama, in Romney’s telling, is denying the value of hard work, telling middle-class Americans they don’t deserve what they have, and then taking their money and giving it to poor people who refuse to work.

(To preemptively address the sure-to-ensue complaints, I am not calling Romney racist. He is espousing a set of ideas that one can subscribe to without any conscious or even subconscious racial animus. It is, however, empirically hard to deny that the political punch of this messaging derives from the fact that white middle-class Americans understand messages about redistribution from the hard-working middle-class to the lazy underclass in highly racialized terms. Programs like Social Security, Medicare, farm subsidies, and the like, which middle-class Americans see as benefiting deserving folks like themselves, are popular; transfer programs only become unpopular if voters see them as accruing to the undeserving poor.)

So, Romney’s attack here does have some real political punch (which is why Obama was so obviously sweating the “you didn’t build that” attack). Yet, this still leaves the question of whether Romney’s class offensive is enough. Public opinion on Obama has hardened, while opinion on Romney remains malleable and seems to be souring. Romney still has given no sign that he has a meaningful plan to prevent himself from being defined (accurately, I’d say) as a plutocrat running on retro-Bushian policies.