The Strategy Behind Romney’s Welfare Ads

To anyone aware of their breathtakingly mendacious nature, the Romney/Ryan August Offensive of ads, talking-points, and speech excerpts accusing Barack Obama of “gutting” welfare reform illustrates the cold cynicism of the challenger’s campaign about a once-hot topic. But other than the obvious general effort to bring back the racially-tinged wedge politics of the 1970s and 1980s in an appeal to white working-class voters, what does it all say about Team Mitt’s strategy?

TNR’s Nate Cohn has an answer:

The welfare advertisements represent a marked shift in Romney’s strategy. Rather than reinforcing existing perceptions of Obama, the Romney campaign is trying to introduce new information about the president to critical white working class voters. Realistically, Romney’s chances hinge more on building up his own image than bolstering Obama’s negatives, but if the Romney campaign just doesn’t possess any tools to restore their candidate’s image, then an attack targeted at swing voters and drawing on powerful underlying sentiments is probably their next best option. Whether Romney’s welfare angle works without sustained media attention remains to be seen.

As Nate notes, the welfare attacks are “new information” because they are just made up, and they are not getting “sustained media attention” because the MSM knows they are based on lies, even if many of them won’t come right out and say so. But having said that, Nate’s analysis confirms what I’ve been saying for a good while about everything the Romney campaign’s been doing lately: the original strategy of calling for an economic referendum and then making Romney a “safe alternative” to the status quo via his biography is in shambles. He’s stuck with precisely what he didn’t want, a “choice” election. So now he’s fishing in the toxic waters of right-wing memes about Obama’s sinister future intentions, which basically involve a vicious battle for resources and power between virtuous and “successful” white folk and those who would loot them and mock their values. The welfare attacks are a big part of that, but so, too, are the closely coordinated claims that Obama’s has “raided” Medicare to pay for ObamaCare.

I continue to think an ad or ads on the welfare issue featuring Bill Clinton (a) refuting the lies about Obama’s record, and (b) making it clear it is the GOP that is threatening work-based welfare reform by its assault on federal policies and programs that “make work pay,” could go a long ways towards blowing up the whole Romney/Ryan strategy. Such a counter-attack would be sweet nectar to the news media, and would revive the already abundant negative judgments on the veracity of the Romney attacks.

The more I think about it, angry as I am about the welfare line of attack and fearful of its pernicious impact, it’s clear Romney has been taking a big risk based on the absence of any strategic alternatives. He’s chosen the one line of attack that doesn’t rely on his vulnerable biography; doesn’t draw attention to the Ryan Budget; and depends on extending the paranoid view of the conservative “base” about Obama to the one segment of swing voters receptive to this sort of argument. It’s a shaky limb Mitt’s out on right now, and if it breaks, he’s in big trouble.

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.