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Romney’s welfare gambit

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Mitt Romney has finally figured out what to do with his vanquished rivals Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich. They will be his senior advisers on race relations.

Both gentlemen are eminently qualified for this role.

Santorum, you may recall, is the man who stood before a group of white Iowans in January and said: “I don’t want to make black people’s lives better by giving them somebody else’s money. I want to give them the opportunity to go out and earn the money and provide for themselves and their families.”

The candidate later attempted to argue that he had said “blah” rather than “black.”

Then came Gingrich, who in New Hampshire repeatedly dubbed President Obama “the best food-stamp president in American history.” Then, as now, Gingrich claimed his branding of the first black president with a program that disproportionately benefits African Americans had nothing to do with race.

Romney, admirably, had largely avoided such dog whistles during the primary campaign. Then, this week, he released an ad that abandoned the high ground, falsely claiming that Obama had “quietly announced a plan to gut welfare reform.” It went on: “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.”

I covered welfare reform in 1995 and 1996 as a congressional reporter for the Wall Street Journal, so I have followed the issue closely. And Romney’s assertion is, as has been widely documented, nonsense. Republican governors were among those requesting the recent waivers of the welfare work requirements, the “demonstration projects” that sparked Romney’s attack. Ron Haskins, who as a Ways and Means Committee staffer in the 1990s helped draft the welfare law for House Republicans, told NPR that “there’s no plausible scenario under which it really constitutes a serious attack on welfare reform.”

Why Romney is doing this is fairly plain. Romney polls best among white, working-class men, and he needs them to turn out in large numbers. Yet even at this late stage of the campaign, some of the GOP base remains suspicious of his candidacy — a suspicion that was encouraged by this week’s defense of “Romneycare” in Massachusetts by a Romney spokeswoman. And a poll by Pew Research Center last month found that nearly a quarter of white evangelicals were uncomfortable with Romney’s Mormonism. Romney therefore has incentive to revive the culture wars, which also accounts for his ad this week claiming Obama had launched a “war on religion.”

What makes Romney’s welfare gambit dispiriting is that, as a member of one of the most persecuted groups in American history, he knows more than most the dangers of fanning bigotry. Yet now he has injected into the campaign what has for decades been a standard device for race-baiting — a suspect move because welfare hadn’t been on the radar screen.

This is my problem with Romney: He is a decent man, but he’s too weak to stand up to the minority on his own side who are not. With the welfare attack, he is encouraging them. After releasing the ad claiming Obama would “just send you your welfare check,” Romney made the racial component official when his Republican National Committee hosted a conference call the next day with Gingrich, who, sure enough, reprised his food-stamp assault, telling reporters that “an honest discussion about dependency doesn’t mean you’re a racist.” But what about a dishonest discussion?

Thursday, the RNC hosted a call with Santorum, who did everything but revive the “welfare queen” attack of the 1980s.

“What the president wants to do is turn back the clock and do what he has done with every single other entitlement program in this country, which is increase the number of people on it, increase dependency,” Santorum charged. Add in Obama’s “contempt for the Constitution, his contempt for the rule of law,” Santorum added, “and this is a pattern that I think people are concerned about.”

The week before launching his welfare attack, Romney told a group of donors in Jerusalem that “culture makes all the difference” in the “dramatic, stark” disparity between Israeli wealth and Palestinian poverty.

Saeb Erekat, an adviser to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, called the statement “racist.”

Romney may not have meant it to be — but, as Santorum likes to say, this is a pattern.

danamilbank@washpost.com

Read more on this topic The Post’s View: Mr. Romney’s welfare politics Jennifer Rubin: The left tries to distract from welfare and ad debacle Greg Sargent: The welfare queens dancing in Newt Gingrich’s head

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