I have to admit, if not admire, the superficial cleverness of the Romney attack on Obama’s welfare policies. Republicans may have very well set the administration up for this by asking for more state flexibility in administering work requirements with every intention of blasting them if they granted it (as Alec Macgillis suggested in a tweet today). It’s a complex law that’s incredibly easy to demagogue.

Most importantly, it places the Meta-Message of the entire conservative assault on Barack Obama–that he wants to loot good virtuous working folk of their hard-earned tax dollars to pay those people–you know who they are–loaf and steal and make babies and even take out mortgages they have zero attention of paying–on a stronger footing. Up until now Republicans were basically using the old “welfare queen” meme on the working poor, the “lucky duckies” who were receiving refundable EITC credits and would benefit from the Affordable Care Act because they don’t currently qualify for Medicaid. But because they were working (or at least trying to work), they were more sympathetic figures than the old pre-1996 “welfare class.” The purpose of the ad and the highly contrived argument it makes is to bring back the good old days of blatant race-baiting aimed at people who often don’t even vote.

The other meme the ad reinforces is that Obama is stealthily unraveling the “centrist” policies of Bill Clinton, and dragging the Democratic Party back to the bad old days of unreconstructed paleoliberalism. It’s no mistake it features a photo of Clinton signing the 1996 welfare reform law.

But Team Romney is leaving itself a bit vulnerable by going there, because Bill Clinton is very much alive and well and has a somewhat better idea of what he was trying to accomplish in 1996 and throughout his presidency than members of the party who tried to force him out of office and hated him almost as much as they hate Obama.

So if I were advising the president, I’d get the 42d occupant of the White House out there post-haste to rebut the lies and expose their intent. Nobody, but nobody knows the details of welfare policy quite like Bill Clinton (I still have a copy of a PPI policy paper on the subject that he marked up acutely). Nobody remembers quite like him how uninterested most Republicans actually were in encouraging work–as opposed to punishing the poor and saving the federal government and the states money (he described one of the GOP welfare reform bills as “tough on kids, weak on work” before he vetoed it). If nothing else, it would discourage Romney’s campaign from ever again pretending he’s more like Clinton than Clinton’s Democratic successor.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.