Jonathan Weiler: Why Romney’s Desperate Welfare Attacks Won’t Work
Political media expert Paul Waldman has asserted that Mitt Romney’s already-notorious attack on President Obama for allegedly wanting to gut the work requirements in the state-administered but federally-funded welfare program known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) may qualify as the single most dishonest television ad in the history of American presidential campaigns.
Even the impossibly unctuous Newt Gingrich couldn’t slither out of acknowledging that there is no factual basis for its central claim. Indeed, the attack appears to be a sign of desperation from a campaign that is sputtering. Lacking anything approaching a coherent message — other than a promise to reduce taxes on the very well-off and to start a new cold war with Russia — the Romney campaign has, it seems, decided that if attacking a Democrat over welfare was good for the gipper, it must be good for the gander.
Leaving aside the bracing dishonesty of Romney’s welfare spot — not itself an impediment to the ad persuading people, of course — the attack is likely to backfire. In the 1970s and 1980s in particular, welfare was very much part of national policy debates. And welfare was readily linked to other issues of pressing concern, including soaring crime rates, urban decay and conflicts over school busing. All of these issues were deeply racialized, of course. But you did not have to be a racist to be upset about high crime, deteriorating neighborhoods or explosive racial tensions at your kid’s school. In that context, attacking welfare was a powerful proxy for indicting liberal policy failures more broadly, helping to convince voters to connect various social pathologies to an overarching liberal-induced policy fiasco that was undermining ordinary Americans’ well-being.