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.
By contrast, there is no comparable context today for making welfare a meaningful campaign issue. It has barely registered in policy debates on the national level since President Clinton signed into law welfare reform in 1996, when TANF replaced Aid to Families with Dependent Children. Most Americans nowadays might blame their economic plight on outsourcing, or excessive government spending, or Wall Street, or illegal immigrants taking their jobs or the financial crisis or some combination of such factors, but there is no plausible narrative linking their struggles to welfare.
Three decades ago, crime, racial tension and so forth were the stuff of evening news, which most Americans still tuned into, helping anti-welfare forces construct narratives out of story lines with which ordinary Americans were familiar. By contrast, only in the increasingly insular and fevered world of the right-wing media bubble and its email-driven conspiracy theories is a connection made between say, the collapse of the housing bubble and lending money to poor people. In 2012, "welfare" simply has no meaning, symbolic or otherwise, for most people.
In her compelling book, The Race Card, political scientist Tali Mendelberg argued that, in an age in which professed belief in racial equality is the social norm, in order to exploit race for political gain, the racial content of such messaging needs to be implicit, not explicit. Lee Atwater famously captured this reality in explaining so-called dog-whistle politics:
You start out in 1954 by saying, "Nigger, nigger, nigger." By 1968 you can't say "nigger" - that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights and all that stuff. You're getting so abstract now [that] you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites.
And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I'm not saying that. But I'm saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me -- because obviously sitting around saying, "We want to cut this," is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than "Nigger, nigger."
Most Americans, whether or not we harbor some discomfort about people who look different than we do, want very much to see ourselves as tolerant and we recoil genuinely at overt expressions of prejudice. To be sure, underneath those well-meaning surface sentiments, things get quite a bit more complicated. And particular circumstances, like troubled economic times, can exacerbate those more unruly and less tolerant sentiments. But blatant racial appeals will turn most people off.
The Romney welfare ad doesn't itself discuss race specifically (and, it should be noted, the Obama campaign's response to the ad would make Ronald Reagan proud). But there's no meaningful way to connect welfare today -- let alone the hypothetical effects of a relatively obscure policy change -- to the problems facing most Americans, especially since Republicans and Democrats alike have spent fifteen years bragging about how well welfare reform has "worked" in dramatically reducing the number of people receiving TANF benefits.
Consequently, it's hard to see this ad as anything but a desperate attempt to remind people that the president, a black president, is indulgent of -- you know -- certain kinds of people. It might galvanize some of his base, though in the end such folks probably hardly need galvanizing. But it's more likely to serve as another reminder of Romney's inability to speak relevantly to the concerns of typical Americans. It's a particularly scurrilous and misplaced attack. And its intent is too obvious even for often willfully obtuse political media not to notice. It's an attempt at a dog-whistle, but one that most folks can hear loud and clear.