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Romney’s starting  his race to the bottom

Updated: September 9, 2012 6:22AM

Mitt Romney on Tuesday reclaimed welfare as a central issue for Republicans this campaign season based on a specious and cynical claim that President Barack Obama has “dismantled” Clinton-era welfare reform.

It’s been 16 years since former President Bill Clinton led a bipartisan effort to fix the nation’s welfare laws, most notably by requiring recipients to work or go to school.

And ever since, Republicans have rued the loss of one of their favorite red-meat issues on the campaign trail. It’s tough to rail against “welfare mothers”— long a favored target of political panderers of all stripes — when you’ve already taken credit for fixing the welfare system.

Now, the Romney campaign believes it has discovered a way to again exploit the issue based on an Obama administration directive last month that will allow states to request waivers from federal regulations on how they meet the work requirement.

In a campaign appearance at an Elk Grove Village factory and in a new commercial released Tuesday, Romney said that’s the same thing as eliminating the requirement for welfare recipients to work.

That’s just not true, as the Republi­can and Democratic governors who’ve expressed interest in waivers could tell him if he were interested. They saw the federal rules as an obstacle to innovative state programs that could put more people back to work.

The Obama administration has clearly stated it will approve no waivers that weaken the work requirement. In fact, states seeking the waivers are supposed to show they will be able to increase job placement for recipients of Temporary Assistance of Needy Families by 20 percent.

We can have a good political argument about whether the president will live up to that promise, but the fact is that to this point no state has applied for a waiver let alone received one. Therefore, not one welfare recipient has been let off the hook.

So it was fairly ridiculous for Romney to stand before his audience at Acme Industries and say, “If I’m president, I will put work back in welfare,” or that he’s going “to end the spread of a culture of dependency.”

When did this culture spread? Between now and last month during a period in which nothing has really changed as far as how the program operates for the individuals involved?

Or are we supposed to believe the culture changed four years ago when we elected the first black president of the United States?

Whoops, I wasn’t supposed to say that. These days that’s called playing the race card. But that’s the rub, isn’t it.

Everybody knows that welfare has always served as code for race in American politics. Historically, when whites talked about “welfare recipients,” that meant minorities, blacks actually if you get right down to it, even though about one-third of Americans collecting TANF are white and one-fourth are Hispanic.

The Romney campaign also issued a background memo that accused Obama of using the welfare changes to “turn back the clock” to “old-school, big-government liberalism” as a way of appealing to a “dispirited liberal base in need of encouragement.”

Oh, yes, we here in the dispirited liberal base have been pining away for the day when we could just see more people on the welfare rolls — especially if none of them are asked to do anything to better themselves. That’s us in a nutshell.

At least Romney didn’t just refer to Obama’s “dispirited base,” leaving us to speculate on which Obama political base he meant.

I take this as the clearest sign yet Romney isn’t going to play by the same rules of engagement that GOP nominee John McCain followed in 2008. We’ll know he’s fully committed to this approach when he starts portraying Obama as soft on crime.

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