Romney and welfare: Who's waging class warfare now?

You know some things never change when the GOP presidential candidate starts criticizing his Democratic opponent for handing out checks to undeserving layabouts who are too lazy to work. Remember Ronald Reagan's "welfare queens" driving Cadillacs and eating sirloin steaks? Or Newt Gingrich's epithet for Barack Obama as the "food stamp president" during this year's GOP primaries?

Apparently there's no stereotype too base, no innuendo too thinly disguised that some aspirant to high office claiming to represent the party of Lincoln won't use it to stir up the politics of racial and class resentment.

Now Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, has waded in with the latest incarnation of this hoary theme. This week his campaign started running an ad accusing President Obama of "gutting" the 1996 welfare reform act signed by former President Bill Clinton, which requires people receiving public assistance to work or train for a job in order to be eligible for benefits.

The ad claims that "under Obama's plan, you wouldn't have to work and wouldn't have train for a job." They just send you your welfare check — which, presumably, poor people will be using from now on to buy Cadillacs and all the steak they can eat. The ad suggests President Obama "quietly" changed the law while the public wasn't looking to make it possible for the government to go back to paying people for not working.

Of course, the Obama administration has done no such thing, and former President Clinton himself, who supported the work requirement that was passed by a bipartisan majority in Congress, recently stepped forward to denounce the charge as a willful distortion of the facts. But you'd never know that from the Romney camp's smarmy insistence that everything its ad claims is true.

Fact checkers at several news organizations have already gone over this with a fine-toothed comb, and here is what they found: This summer President Obama authorized Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sibelius to allow states to acquire waivers for the so-called "Welfare to Work" program. The waivers would only be granted to states that request them, and states would have to show that more people would be employed by an alternate approach than under current federal guidelines. The limit on the amount of time people could spend on welfare without working or looking for a job wouldn't change.

You'd think giving states more power to craft their own welfare-to-work programs would be applauded by GOP leaders who say the federal government already has too much power in local affairs. And you think the party would support a change that was made expressly at request of the two GOP governors from Utah and Nevada. In fact, Mr. Romney himself sought a similar waiver when he was governor of Massachusetts.

So why is he now attacking a policy he once sought to implement in his own state before he entered the presidential fray? Mr. Romney is resorting to an old GOP playbook to appeal to white voters, especially working-class white men, by scaring them into believing Democrats want to squander their hard-earned dollars on people who don't want to work. In effect, it's a strategy for turning white middle class voters who are still struggling to climb out from under the worst recession against African Americans and the poor by using "welfare" as a code word for race and class.

That Mr. Romney is stooping to such tactics now suggests he is becoming desperate, and that his camp no longer believes he can win in November solely his claim to be a superior manager of the economy. If so, we can expect to see him rely even more heavily on such demagogy as the election approaches. Mr. Romney is showing he will do anything to win, no matter how dishonorable or dishonest it may seem in light of his own past positions, and unfortunately that appears to include playing the race card to the hilt.

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