The Romney campaign's assault on President Obama's welfare policy drew direct charges from Democrats and leading media organizations Wednesday that Romney is playing racial politics, the latest sign that race, always simmering beneath the surface of American electoral politics, may be moving to the forefront of the presidential election.
Mitt Romney has spent the past two weeks attacking Obama, from the stump and with commercials airing in swing states, for allegedly dropping the the work requirement to receive welfare, an exaggerated version of the Obama Administration's offer to states of a conditional waiver for some of the requirements of the Clinton-era program.
It could open Romney up to criticism that he is injecting race into the campaign and seeking to boost support among white, working-class voters by charging that the nation’s first black president is offering a free pass to recipients of a program stereotypically associated with poor African-Americans.
NBC's respected morning tipsheet First Thoughts echoed that charge, and offered a theory of the case:
Our new poll also might explain why the Romney campaign has been airing all of those TV ads on welfare ... or why Paul Ryan was invoking “clinging to my guns and my religion” yesterday while campaigning in Pennsylvania. The reason: Romney is underperforming with white voters.
Since the 1990s, welfare reform has proved, as a matter of political fact, a powerful issue for white swing voters who backed politicians like New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and President Bill Clinton. And campaigns have routinely drawn charges, sometimes justified, of playing on racial division with the issue.
A Romney spokesman, who engaged the explosive issue on the condition he not be named, dismissed the notion out of hand.
"The advertisements run by the Romney-Ryan campaign address the Obama Administration's policy of gutting welfare reform," the spokesman said. "To suggest the ads communicate anything else is manufactured controversy with no basis in reality, and doesn't deserve the dignity of a response."
There has not been recent public polling on whether the 1990s-vintage politics of welfare and work — which figures like Clinton and Giuliani used to signal a break with the big-government philosophy of the Great Society — remain relevant today. African-Americans are not, in fact, a majority of welfare recipients, and poor whites make up a large share of families dependent on government aide.
But a recent study by a Brown University professor did find that people already inclined to old racial stereotypes about welfare were more likely to support Romney's approach to the issue.
And President Obama's allies suggested they had little doubt about the Romney campaign's goals. Bill Burton, who runs the pro-Obama SuperPAC Priorities USA, questioned what other political rationale could be driving the welfare attacks — though he declined to directly peg them as race-baiting.
"Other folks can determine that," Burton told BuzzFeed. "All I know is that the attacks are ill-conceived considering how far they are outside the narrative they purport to be telling about the President. Further, they do nothing to strengthen the story they're trying to tell about Mitt Romney. You can see who they're trying to appeal to tactically but strategically, it's nonsensical."
Meanwhile, Associated Press spokesman Paul Colford defended the analysis in their article, saying it was the product of interviews with multiple "strategists in both parties" who "say [welfare] is an issue that plays well particularly with white, working-class voters." (The article itself does not quote any sources making this point.)
"One question might be why other news organizations haven't put these pieces together and drawn the same conclusion," Colford said.
The episode follows a week of escalating tension over the rhetoric of race on the campaign trail. Last week, Vice President Joe Biden told a largely black audience in Virginia that a Romney presidency would seek to "put y'all back in chains."
"Race is always a political issue; it's the American dilemma," said Abigail Thernstrom, a conservative scholar of race and George W. Bush appointee U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. "I mean, what's dismaying is when candidates play the race card in various ways... I think Biden's words were the words of someone who's panicked. The more they come to feel they may lose this election, which of course they may, the uglier they get."
The Obama campaign said Biden's comments were not racial, but rather a reference to Romney's campaign rhetoric on financial regulation.
Romney, meanwhile, has accused the president of deliberately driving racial division.
“I think if you look at the ads that have been described, and the divisiveness based upon income, age, ethnicity and so forth, it’s designed to bring a sense of enmity and jealousy and anger,” Romney said in an interview with CBS News. “And this is not, in my view, what the American people want to see.”
Romney's point appeared to be a nod toward a narrative that has been percolating in conservative media for years, which suggests there's widespread "race war" going on in America — one the mainstream media is covering up, and which Obama is happily exploiting.
Cheryl Contee, a black liberal blogger, charged by contrast that Republicans are increasingly taking advantage of racial ignorance.
"In a country where a significant number of conservatives still believe that the President is not a citizen despite evidence to the contrary, the caustic manipulation of racial tension is inevitable," she said. "Look for more of this as each campaign attempts to motivate its supporters to vote."
McKay Coppins is a senior writer for the BuzzFeed News politics team, and the author of The Wilderness, about the battle over the future of the Republican Party.
Contact McKay Coppins at email@example.com.
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