The Romney campaign's new ad hitting President Obama on his administration's unilateral decision to lawlessly undermine key provisions of the 1996 bipartisan welfare reform act has Democrats up in arms. Liberal writers are denouncing the charge as racist (because, evidently, they automatically associate welfare programs with minorities), a Lefty fact-check organization has rated the ad "pants on fire" false, and former President Clinton released a statement calling Romney's assertions "not true." Let's ignore the predictable and unseemly race-baiting and discuss the latter two criticisms. Here's how Politifact defends its "pants on fire" verdict:
Romney’s ad says, "Under Obama’s plan (for welfare), you wouldn’t have to work and wouldn’t have to train for a job. They just send you your welfare check." That's a drastic distortion of the planned changes to Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. By granting waivers to states, the Obama administration is seeking to make welfare-to-work efforts more successful, not end them. What’s more, the waivers would apply to individually evaluated pilot programs -- HHS is not proposing a blanket, national change to welfare law. The ad tries to connect the dots to reach this zinger: "They just send you your welfare check." The HHS memo in no way advocates that practice. In fact, it says the new policy is "designed to improve employment outcomes for needy families." The ad’s claim is not accurate, and it inflames old resentments about able-bodied adults sitting around collecting public assistance. Pants on Fire!
This interpretation offers an exceptionally generous assessment of Obama's intentions, taking the administration's stated positions at face value. Pardon me for not giving this crew the benefit of the doubt. That being said, I agree that Team Romney probably overstepped by stating outright that it is Obama's "plan" to eliminate work requirements. As Politifact notes, the HHS decree "is not proposing a blanket, national change to the welfare law." That's right. They're merely offering to grant states waivers from the reform's stringent work requirements, which some jurisdictions may/will use to erode the standards set forth in the 1996 law. So using the phrase "Obama's plan" is a bit of a stretch. But that doesn't remotely justify Politifact's severe rating. Their own essay goes on to partially concede two critical points:
It’s important to note, however, that the waivers would not just be a change on paper. Schott said it’s possible that waivers will allow states to get credit under the work requirement for things that don’t count currently. That possibility has critics of the proposal up in arms. Robert Rector, a welfare expert with the conservative Heritage Foundation, said it could ultimately allow "state bureaucrats" to count activities that aren't really work. We should point out that those concerns are at odds with the policy's stated goal of encouraging employment. The Romney campaign also contends that HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius is not legally allowed to waive the existing work requirements. Rector argues that the part of the law allowing waivers does not cover TANF work provisions. "Critically, this section, as well as most other TANF requirements, is deliberately not listed... its provisions cannot be waived," Rector wrote in a July 12 column in the National Review. We think that’s a noteworthy point, but it’s one that a court will have to settle.
By Polifact's own accounting, even HHS concedes that some states may significantly loosen the work guidelines due to these new waivers. This is the core of Romney's claim. States had too much flexibility in the past, which is why activities such as journaling, "motivational reading" and bed rest counted as work for some welfare recipients. Closing these laughable loopholes was one of the primary catalysts for enacting reform in the first place. Politifact also notes the strong claim -- backed up by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service -- that the Obama administration violated the clear language of the statute by offering any TANF waivers. This executive tampering is specifically and deliberately proscribed by the reform law as written by Congress and signed by President Clinton. The "fact-checkers" allow that this contention is "noteworthy," but don't even attempt to check its veracity, leaving that decision to the courts. In other words, "we suppose this entire maneuver really could be illegal, but we're not going to try to determine whether that's the case." Heck of a job, guys. As for Clinton's missive on the subject, it's brimming with typical Democrat boilerplate, regurgitating party talking points and inaccurately accusing Romney of hypocrisy:
Clinton suggested Obama was simply being as flexible as he was, pointing out that the recent DHS directive came at the request of Republican governors in Utah and Nevada...Clinton called Romney's ad "especially disappointing" because Romney, as governor of Massachusetts, had pushed Congress to give states more power to control their welfare measures.
The Republican governors of Utah and Nevada have written follow-up letters to HHS explicitly clarifying that the flexibility they requested did not involve the power to water down work requirements at all. And the letter that Romney signed in 2005 did, indeed, ask for increased state leeway to administer welfare. It did not, however, seek waivers to weaken work requirements. (Romney staunchly opposed such efforts as governor, and vetoed efforts to that effect). Crucially, the 2005 letter was directed to Congress, asking for legislative changes -- not unilateral executive waivers, which were clearly prohibited by the 1996 law. There is a substantial difference between trying to improve a law through the democratic process, and tossing out ideologically unpalatable bits and pieces via executive fiat. The Romney campaign has released another video on this subject, spotlighting Obama's extremism on this issue:
As I pointed out yesterday, Obama opposed the work requirements and the overall reform as they were being debated at the time. This is the best evidence to bolster Romney's debatable description of Obama's "plan" for welfare more generally. His position placed Obama to the Left of Senators Kerry and Biden, as well as President Clinton (who is being a good soldier by issuing a perfunctory statement to help protect Obama). The fact remains Obama agreed with the contemporaneous Lefty consensus that work requirements would devastate indigent Americans. Instead, the reforms cut the welfare rolls in half, massively increased employment and drastically cut child poverty. These outcomes are immaterial to Obama the ideologue, which is why he pulled this stunt. I'll also add that it's mystifying to see Democrats crying crocodile tears about this fact-based -- if somewhat exaggerated -- ad, when none of them seem interested in decrying the wildly false and hysterical Romney/cancer ad put out by Obama's SuperPAC.
UPDATE - ABC News offers a more balanced fact-check of the ad, calling its various elements "possibly true" with some apparent "exaggerations."
UPDATE II - Ramesh Ponnuru has an illuminating column on this subject.