The Romney campaign criticizes the Obama administration for gutting welfare reform, and the Democratic chorus sings the familiar refrain: “Racist!” Leading the choir is tingly countertenor Chris Matthews of MSNBC: “When you start talking about work requirements,” he thundered at Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus, “you know what game you’re playing, and everybody knows what game you’re playing: It’s a race card.” This judgment was immediately confirmed by Thomas Edsall of the New York Times and Timothy Noah of The New Republic, among others.
There is racial politics at work here, and, as usual, it is a Democratic initiative.
Before proceeding to the question of Democratic race-baiting, it is worth paying a moment’s attention to the substantive policy question here. As Mr. Noah disingenuously puts it, the Obama administration says it has the authority to give waivers to states “allowing them to experiment with alternative ways to meet the work requirement” imposed by the Clinton-Gingrich welfare reforms. One of the ways in which states could be allowed to “meet the work requirement” is by not meeting the work requirement, i.e., by sending out welfare checks without requiring that nearly half the recipients perform 30 hours of work-related activities (which is not a particularly burdensome standard to begin with). This is important because, as Jim Manzi and others have shown, work requirements are one of the only policy innovations that have been shown in real-world trials to be effective in moving people from welfare to work. Undermine the work requirement and you undermine welfare reform in toto.
The Left never accepted the legitimacy of welfare reform, even though it came with Bill Clinton’s signature on it, and always regarded the initiative as being tainted by racism. Erasing welfare reform now is the Left’s opportunity to scrub away what it wrongly believes to be a blight on the record of the Democratic party rather than the key achievement of the Clinton administration.
Mr. Matthews’s accusations were, as is his style, presented without evidence or argument, and indeed without anything that might even charitably be called intellectual content. That he immediately connects welfare in his mind with race is of course telling: The majority of American welfare recipients are white. Blacks are disproportionately represented on the welfare rolls, it is true. That is not the only place in which black Americans are overrepresented: As conservatives have been shouting from the rooftops for a couple of years now, the black unemployment rate is a national scandal — reason enough to fire Barack Obama on its own. But the majority of unemployed people, like the majority of welfare recipients — and the majority of the country, of course — are white. Reducing the welfare rolls, like reducing the unemployment rate (and the two are not unrelated), is necessary to rebuilding the economic and human strength of the country for Americans of all races. Mr. Matthews here exhibits a crude, zero-sum view of politics and the economy, and then takes the extra step of attributing that crude, zero-sum view to his opponents. This is startling in its simplemindedness.
Mr. Noah takes a depressingly similar tack, arguing that the alleged Republican racism is (inevitably) “subtle” and encompasses attacks on the health-care law, inasmuch as such attacks consist in accusing “Obama of taking money away from (mainly white recipients of) Medicare to fund (majority non-white recipients of) Obamacare.” But it’s far from clear that the beneficiaries of Obamacare will be mostly non-white; the vast majority of those Americans who do not receive insurance through their employers will be eligible for either subsidized premiums or Medicaid. This is a childish shell game: If Romney wants to repeal Obamacare to support Medicare, he’s a racist; if he wants to reform Medicare, he hates old people.
Democrats’ proprietary attitude toward African-Americans is a disgrace, one that nine in ten black voters unfortunately reinforce at every electoral opportunity. Welfare reform is not about limiting the transfer of money from white taxpayers to non-white welfare recipients, but about ensuring that programs intended to help the poor and ease their transition into the productive economy do not in the end damage the poor, corrupt public institutions, and constrain the economy. The Democrats know that a voter dependent on the government — whether a welfare recipient or an EPA employee — is a Democratic voter, and they actively cultivate that dependency. President Obama’s economy is driving more Americans onto President Obama’s swelling welfare rolls. Republicans seek to reverse both of those trends, which would be self-evidently good for all Americans. The best the Democrats can do in such a situation is to shout “Racist!” and so they will.