In this very negative election season, the Barack Obama and Mitt Romney campaigns don't sweat accuracy. Even if fact-checking PolitiFact rates a 30-second spot as "pants-on-fire" false or Washington Post fact checker Glenn Kessler gives it four Pinocchios -- his maximum rating -- no worries; they don't clean up their act. As Slate's John Dickerson wrote, to the grizzled campaign operatives of 2012, "if you're not getting four Pinocchios or a pants-on-fire, you're not doing it right."
Last week's mud fight began with a Romney campaign ad claiming that in a July 12 memorandum, the Obama administration "quietly announced a plan to gut welfare reform by dropping work requirements." PolitiFact rated the spot as "pants-on-fire" false. Kessler gave it four Pinocchios. Romneyville has no proof that the Department of Health and Human Services' decision to grant states waivers has ended work requirements for welfare recipients. The administration has not issued a single waiver. The Romney ad should not have been made and ought to be pulled.
Why the waivers? The memo says Utah and Nevada wanted waivers to help them get around regulations in Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, also known as welfare. Liz Schott, senior fellow of the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, supports the administration's decision because, she told me, "one, the requirements don't work. Two, verifying sucks time."
Robert Rector, the welfare expert of the conservative Heritage Foundation, on the other hand, read the welfare memo and quickly co-authored a piece for National Review, titled "Obama Ends Welfare Reform As We Know It."
Rector argues that it was illegal for the administration to create waivers under the applicable section of the 1996 bipartisan welfare reform package signed by President Bill Clinton. PolitiFact didn't refute that: "We think that's a noteworthy point, but it's one that a court will have to settle." Kessler notes that one author of the 1996 law said the administration, in bypassing Congress, at the very least violated the spirit of the law. On a Romney conference call, Ted Cruz, a GOP candidate in Texas for a U.S. Senate seat, described Obama's who-needs-Congress fiat as "executive arrogance."
Rector told me he hasn't talked to the Romney campaign. He doesn't care what the fact checkers say. He believes it's illegal for the administration to issue welfare waivers. Obama was publicly critical of the 1996 welfare reform after it passed, and he said he probably wouldn't have voted for it. Rector has seen liberals slyly try to rewrite the rules to loosen work requirements. He told me, "I don't need to wait for your 35th waiver."
But as a candidate for president, Romney needs facts to back up Rector's convictions.
Besides, welfare waivers are a bad issue for Romney. When it comes to Obamacare and Medicaid, Romney loves state waivers. Thus, this criticism appears opportunistic.
The Obama campaign fought back by flagging a 2005 Republican Governors Association letter -- signed by 29 governors, including Romney -- that advocated "increased waiver authority." In that the letter concerned a different piece of legislation, Kessler gave the Obama counter-spin three Pinocchios.
A recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll put the percentage of undecided voters at 3 percent, noted Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California. As a result, neither camp is trying to persuade swing voters; they just want to rev up the base. "When you're trying to rev up the base, you make the nastiest noises you can."