A Blast From the Disreputable Past

I’ve been examining my conscience to figure out exactly why the Romney-Ryan campaign’s “Obama killed welfare work requirement” large and continuing series of ads and speech references and talking points enrages me so very much.

Yes, I used to be something of a welfare policy wonk, and know how incredibly mendacious and wrong-minded this line of attack is, and how deeply hypocritical Republicans are for complaining that Obama doesn’t want welfare recipients to work even as they are trying to destroy every single public policy that “makes work pay” for people trapped in poverty. And when Romney’s ads and surrogates claim that the administration’s willingness to entertain state waivers from the specific rules of the 1996 law represent a “gutting” of that law, it does trip across memories of the perpetual willingness of Republicans prior to and ever since 1996 to dump the whole income-maintenance issue on the states with no strings.

But lying and hypocrisy have become standard weapons in Team Mitt’s arsenal, going back to the savage primary attacks on fellow-Republicans, so why does this particular example bother me egregiously?

And then the obvious finally hit me: the Romney campaign is reviving the single oldest tactic of southern reactionaries: race-baiting white working class voters to distract them from the many issues on which this segment of the electorate is naturally unsympathetic to policies that reinforce economic and social privilege. It’s how the Bourbons reasserted control over the Populists in the late nineteenth century. It’s how conservatives undermined southern support for the economic policies of the New Deal and Fair Deal and New Frontier and Great Society. It was ultimately the fulcrum for the realignment of the whole region from the Democratic to the Republican Party.

So it’s a familiar tactic, but what makes it novel is that it is not being narrow-cast into North Carolina or Virginia or northern and western Florida or Missouri, but broadcast everywhere. And there is zero way it can be rationalized as a part of an overall GOP message supposedly focused on economic recovery and job creation–or even, given the ridiculously small quantities of federal money that go to the Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF) program, as part of a budget austerity message. It’s a flat-out racial appeal aimed at convincing non-college educated white voters that this black president wants to take their tax dollars to give them to his shiftless black brothers and sisters.

This very non-southern national Republican ticket is going far out of its way to replicate the most despicable tactics of old-school southern racial demagoguery, and is apparently so invested in this strategy that no end of fact-checking and shaming will convince them to let up for a moment. I should hope that any fair-minded Republicans (and yes, there are some left, impotent as they often are in party counsels) or “neutral” MSM observers, regardless of what they think about the two campaigns generally, would bury this particular blast from the disreputable past in an avalanche of denunciation. If not, then progressives owe it to the country to raise hell about it until it stops or is repudiated by voters.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.