The Return of "Welfare Queens"

Yesterday, Mitt Romney unveiled a new attack that—even by the standards of his campaign—was incredible in its dishonesty. First, a little background. A few weeks ago, after urging from both Republican and Democratic govenors, the administration allowed states more flexibility when it came to fulfilling welfare work requirements. The memo, issued by the Department of Health and Human Services, stipulates that states can receive a waiver as long as their programs achieve the same work goals as the original program. The hope is that, with flexibility to try new approaches, more recipients can be placed into jobs.

This, it should be said, was a reform pushed by Romney when he was governor of Massachusetts.

Rather than praise the change, or ignore it, the Romney campaign went on the attack, accusing Obama of “ending the work requirement” and turning welfare into a cash grant. Here’s the ad:

Today, the Obama campaign released its rebuttal, which hits Romney for flagrantly distorting the truth:

This was a quick response, even amidst a campaign in which multiple ads and videos are released every week. But it’s easy to see why Team Obama would want to nip this in the bud. There’s a line in Romney’s ad that hearkens back to Ronald Reagan’s rhetoric about “young bucks” and “welfare queens”:

“Under Obama’s plan, you wouldn’t have to work or wouldn’t have to train for a job, they would just send you your welfare check.”

Racism isn’t inherent in opposition to welfare. But attacks on welfare have often played on stereotypes about “lazy minorities” and government “dependence.” The data shows that there is a strong, if subtle, connection between racial attitudes and support for government programs. If you answer affirmatively to statements like, “African Americans should not need any special privileges when slavery and racism are things of the past,” you are more likely to have a general opposition to downward redistribution.

Romney’s ad plays on that prejudice; it’s telling viewers that the African American president has taken their resources and given them to the undeserving poor, who don’t want to work. This is an obvious appeal to racial resentment, and only a little more subtle than Newt Gingrich’s frequent attacks on Obama’s as a "food stamp president."

Greg Sargent reports that the ad will run at high frequency in all of Romney’s media markets. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. To win the election, the Republican candidate needs to win a historically high percentage of white voters—60 percent, greater than any presidential candidate since Ronald Reagan's 1984 landslide. Given the degree to which Romney will do or say anything to win the presidency (see his radical reinvention over the last eight years), it’s not crazy to think that he would try to capitalize on the zero-sum thinking—and cultural resentment—that emerges especially during times of economic distress.