Viewers of the Republican National Convention heard a lot about jobs, the debt, and Mitt Romney’s love of women, children, small animals, and other non-monetary things. But if you live in a swing state, and you get your political info from commercials, you may think that the presidential election is being fought over the welfare reform signed into law by Bill Clinton in 1996. This is weird. The issue suddenly appeared on television screens without any policy controversy preceding it, because there was no policy controversy. Obama’s administration merely announced a process to grant states flexibility in how they deal with work requirements, with the waivers predicated on a state’s increasing the number of its welfare recipients who have jobs. He has approximately as much interest in gutting Clinton’s welfare reform as he has in having a fling with Monica Lewinsky—even if he secretly desires it, political self-preservation would hold him at bay.
Yet the Romney campaign has blanketed the airwaves with the charge that Obama has repealed the law’s work requirement and is sending out checks to people who do nothing. There’s no question about whether the ads are accurate—they are not. The really tricky dispute centers on whether the ads are racist. The racial implications of the welfare smear have raised the moral stakes to a higher plane than the normal campaign fight, associating Romney with the darkest strains in American political history, and invoking the possibility that should his tactics succeed, many Americans would view his win as tainted. For the same reason, the racism charge has provoked indignation from conservatives who believe the dreaded race card has been pulled against them.
What makes the debate so slippery is that any argument that falls short of “Don’t vote for Barack Obama because he’s black” contains at least some element of a nonracial appeal. Barry Goldwater campaigned against the 1964 Civil Rights Act as a tyrannical extension of federal power. Was he appealing to white racists? In point of fact, overwhelmingly so—but that doesn’t mean there aren’t also people who just oppose extending federal power on principle. George H.W. Bush in 1988 attacked Michael Dukakis for allowing the furlough of murderer Willie Horton. But it is possible to favor more stringent prison sentencing without consciously, or even unconsciously, hating African-Americans.
Liberals generally approach this conceptual dilemma by deploying accusations of racism, well, liberally. The problem is that even if you can show that white racism motivates, say, public opposition to Obamacare—and a medium-size pile of research shows that you can—it doesn’t disprove the policy arguments for the right-wing position. At the opposite extreme are conservatives who refuse to acknowledge even the bluntest racial subtexts. Republicans still deny that Ronald Reagan, who told stories about a “strapping young buck” using food stamps to buy a steak, was appealing to prejudice.
The National Journal’s Ron Fournier has reported that Republican strategists acknowledge off the record that the welfare issue “triggers anger in white blue-collar voters,” and that Romney’s internal polling shows that the ads are moving blue-collar whites toward them. Of course, that outcome by itself does not make the welfare attack illegitimate. If Obama actually was mailing out checks in lieu of work, then Romney would be within his rights to campaign against that, even if this meant that he was exploiting white racial anger in the process. The race card, rarely the real issue, is ultimately not the point here. The best counterattack against Romney’s welfare gambit is simply to point out that Romney is shamelessly lying.