At first it was just a buzz from right-wing think tanks (particularly Heritage’s Robert Rector, who has long been the Darth Vader of poverty policy) and blogs, and a few conservative pols, but it’s sure gone Big-Time now: the claim that the Obama administration is “gutting” the 1996 welfare reform law is the subject of Mitt Romney’s latest ad, and looks like it will be featured in his speeches as well.

This is kind of personal with me. I worked on welfare policy back in the 90s at the Progressive Policy Institute, which was the absolute hotbed of “work first” approaches to welfare reform. Indeed, we were about the only people in the non-technical chattering classes who seemed to understand the distinction between the Clinton administration’s philosophy of welfare reform (aimed at getting welfare recipients into private-sector jobs, not just through work requirements but with robust “making work pay” supports like an expanded EITC, which was enacted at Clinton’s insistence well before welfare reform) and that of congressional Republicans (House Republicans were mainly concerned about punishing illegitimacy and denying assistance to legal immigrants, while Senate Republicans enacted a bill that was just a straight block grant that let states do whatever they wanted so long as they saved the feds money).

I mention this ancient history to point out the rich irony of conservatives now attacking Obama for an alleged hostility to the private-sector job placement emphasis they never gave a damn about, and for giving states more flexibility in administering the federal cash assistance program, which GOPers at every level of government (including Mitt Romney) were clamoring for loudly before, during and after the 1996 debate.

In terms of the “merits,” such as they are, of the Republican critique, (1) you cannot technically speaking “gut” a law by exercising waiver authority the law itself provides; (2) the administration is emphatically not abolishing work requirements, time limits, or any of the other basic architecture of the 1996 law; and (3) announcing an intention to entertain waiver applications from the states is not the same as granting them, much less granting them for the pernicious reasons Romney and company are claiming. The Romney ad’s claim that the administration has abolished work and training requirements and will simply mail checks (meager as they are, particularly in Republican-governed states) to everyone is a bold-faced lie.

More fundamental, of course, is the fact, which you might think Republicans would remember since they talk about it with every breath, that the economy is not creating a lot of jobs right now. Liberal critics warned back in 1996 that a reform scheme that might work in the red-hot tight-labor-market economy of that time would not necessarily work so well in a recession, and they were right (which is one reason that the Clinton administration and us Work First advocates favored a back-up paid community service option, which most conservatives were not interested in). If ever there was an appropriate time to relax specific work requirements to give recipients a few more options, this is it.

Wonkery aside, it’s no mystery why the Romney campaign and its supporters are pursuing this dishonest and deeply hypocritical tack. In a “memorandum” released to support the new ad’s claims, Romney campaign policy director Lanhee Chan accuses Obama of inflicting “a kick in the gut to the millions of hard-working middle-class taxpayers struggling in today’s economy, working more for less but always preferring self-sufficiency to a government handout.” It’s the old welfare-queen meme, which Republicans have already been regularly reviving in their attacks on the Affordable Care Act, on Medicaid, on food stamps, and in their much broader and horrifyingly invidious claims that poor and minority people deliberately taking out mortgages they knew they couldn’t afford caused the whole housing market collapse and the financial crisis that followed.

The claim that Obama is quietly bringing back the old welfare system is perfectly designed to bring back the old politics of the 1980s, when Republicans constantly (and often successfully) sought to pit middle-class voters against the poor while distracting attention from the vast welfare system supporting corporations and the wealthy.

Unlike ACA, Medicaid or even food stamps, there’s very little public support for the pre-1996 welfare system. So Romney and conservatives can go absolutely wild with this attack line, hauling in every racial innuendo imaginable with relatively little fear of blowback. As a bonus, I am sure Team Mitt is abundantly aware that many progressives disliked the 1996 law intensely and/or thought Clinton “caved” to Republicans in signing it (and I can confidently say that even those Democrats who approved of Clinton’s action were for the most party deeply conflicted about it; I certainly was). So they probably hope their attacks spur some internal recriminations within Obama’s own party and voting coalition.

All in all, this development in the campaign is a very nasty piece of work that I hope, but do not expect, Republicans come to regret.

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.