The Big, Racist Lie at the Center of the Romney-Ryan Campaign
US Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaks in central London on July 26.
The Romney team appears to have adopted a strategy of throwing so much dishonest spin around that the fact-checkers just throw their hands up in frustration. Along with his bald-faced lie that Obama “raided” Medicare, this week the campaign tripled-down on its universally debunked claim that the Obama administration had killed the welfare “reforms” passed by Bill Clinton. In fact, they defended that ad by citing a fact-free column by Mickey Kaus published on Tucker Carlson's always-wrong right-wing blog, the Daily Caller.
They hope to make inroads attacking welfare because, like the infamous "Southern strategy," it stokes racial animus. Political scientist Michael Tesler studied voters' reactions to seeing Romney's first welfare ad, and found that, “among those who saw it, racial resentment affected whether people thought Romney will help the poor, the middle-class, and African-Americans.”
Ed Kilgore, who writes for the Washington Monthly, knows as much about Clinton's welfare policies as anyone, having served as the Vice President of Policy for the Democratic Leadership Council, the centrist Democratic think-tank closely alined with Clinton, in the 1990s. Kilgore joined us on this week's AlterNet Radio Hour to discuss welfare and everything else the Romney-Ryan team is throwing against the wall and hoping to see stick. A lightly edited transcript of the discussion is below (you can listen to the whole show here).
Joshua Holland: I want to talk about Romney-Ryan. Is this the first time both liberals and conservatives have been so gleeful over a vice-presidential pick, or is this the first time in recent memory?
Ed Kilgore: It’s the first time I can really remember it being so equal. Occasionally, you’ll get varying descriptions of how one side thinks a candidate is a handicap and another side thinks he or she is an advantage. But in this case there actually is some overlap, a feeling that this offers the electorate a much clearer choice between the two parties. It certainly makes the Republican ticket stand for something other than, "take a chance on something different." I’d say when the announcement came out over the weekend there was joy pretty much everywhere -- except perhaps among Republican political professionals, who were not happy.
JH: That was part of a story that was leaked over the weekend. The Romney camp put out a full court press on the media, saying that Mitt’s advisers wanted to play it safe and he boldly ignored them with his masculine, sharp chin. He went with his guts. Are you buying that story at all?
EK: I don’t really know. I don’t pretend to look into the man’s soul. One explanation was that Mitt thought that Paul Ryan was exactly the sort of guy he would have hired at Bain Capital. I can sort of believe that. Certainly what it looked like was a significant change in strategy by the Romney campaign. For months and months the argument had been that this is a straight up-and-down referendum on the performance of the economy under Obama. It doesn’t really matter what Romney proposes. You just have to look at his character, his competence, his business experience and blah blah blah. By putting Ryan on the ticket they conceded a huge strategic point to the Obama campaign, helping to make it a choice between two agendas for the future rather than a referendum.
I suspect that’s because the referendum strategy wasn’t working -- in no small part because Romney’s biographically based message was frankly falling apart. His business experience didn’t look that great. He managed to make a huge gaffe at the London Olympics, which made his Olympics stewardship less compelling. He was running out of stuff to talk about. That and the fact that they knew Democrats were going to make the Ryan budget their primary target in the general election. I think they may have simply decided that if nothing else they can get the conservatives off their back. They can regain a little tactical flexibility between now and November. The way I described it initially is that this was Mitt Romney’s way of finally ending the primaries. I think it did accomplish that for him. He no longer is going to have to reassure conservatives every single day that he’s got their interests in mind. That’s taken care of.
JH: It seems also to be a continuation of an interesting thing for the Romney campaign. They’re not pivoting toward the center, which the conventional wisdom suggests a candidate must do to win. It does seem like it was a matter of caving to his right flank.
EK: If you look at the entire nomination process two things stand out. One is that it was a really weak field. Secondly, conservatives spent the entire process pinning down Mitt Romney as the punitive frontrunner on a long series of ideological pledges -- the most important being his public agreement that he would sign the Ryan budget if he became president and Republicans controlled both chambers. I don’t think any pivot to the middle, particularly with Romney’s vast record of flip flops, was ever in the running. Frankly, most Republicans don’t think that’s the ticket anyway. Partly because they believe they moved to the right and won in 2010. Also, everybody admits that the percentage of the electorate that’s undecided this time around is unusually small.
JH: When you say it’s a weak field I almost think that you’re suggesting Herman Cain or Michele Bachmann aren’t presidential, which is just crazy talk. I don’t know where you liberals get your ideas.
I want to move onto a few of the issues that are front and center right now in this election. Romney seems to be really race-bating in what I see as a pretty blatant way. He called Obama the food stamp President. Now he’s claiming Obama has rolled back the welfare reforms passed by Bill Clinton in the 1990s, and he’s running these ads to white voters that, “you paid for that,” with lots of images of black people getting welfare benefits and what not. It’s not subtle at all. Before we get to the substance of that welfare claim, are you surprised that he’s dog-whistling this? McCain, for all his faults, did not go there in 2008 in the same way that I think Romney is.
EK: It doesn’t particularly surprise me. Romney showed himself to be completely without scruples during the primaries in the kind of attacks he launched on Republican rivals. I think he’s the sort of guy who is wealthy and tweedy. I don’t think they feel he fits the profile of a racial demagogue, and so he can get away with what are generally called dog whistles. I agree with you that the stuff they’re doing, particularly on welfare, is pretty blatant.
JH: You know a lot about Clinton’s welfare reforms. You know a lot about the detail there. What’s the real story here? There’s no truth to the claim that Obama is in fact rolling back the Clinton reforms.
EK: No, and again you have to remember precisely what Romney is saying in these ads – that Obama has abolished work requirements. In fact, what he’s done is that HHS will be open to waiver applications from states who want a different strategy for achieving the work requirements of the reformed welfare system. A majority of these states wanting these waivers happen to have Republican governors.
The ad also claims that Obama has now made it possible to just sit back and get their welfare checks without doing anything. That is truly fabricated. There’s one conservative social policy wonk, Robert Rector at the Heritage Foundation, who started putting out this claim when HHS invited the waiver applications – that it was gutting welfare reform. I don’t know that anybody bought it. But, frankly, right now it is the centerpiece of the Romney Ryan campaign. They’re running these ads at massive levels in all the battlegrounds states. There have actually been two of them. This line about abolishing work requirements is in every speech by Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan. They’re going really, really big on this.
JH: The thing that listeners really need to understand is that the provision that allows states to get a waiver was in the original legislation in the 1990s that was passed by Bill Clinton. There’s no change whatsoever, right?
EK: I could on about this for hours. Ironically, one of the Republican bills that Clinton vetoed before he signed the 1996 law was pretty much a straight forward block grant. It would have let states do whatever the hell they want with a limited amount of money. Republicans have been the big champions of state flexibility all along. It was Clinton who really insisted on a work focus, not simply caseload reduction, delegitimizing welfare recipients, or having hard time limits. It’s extraordinarily ironic now for Republicans to be claiming they will restore work requirements in welfare reform that Obama has somehow abolished. It’s very important for people to understand that this isn’t a matter of interpretation. This isn’t policy nuance. This is a blatant, manufactured assertion. The only word for it is a lie.
JH: There you go, Ed Kilgore, good job! A lot of times people in the media have a hard time using that word. It is a lie.
EK: I’m careful about using it myself.
JH: You should be cautious, but when it’s merited...
EK: Again they’ve been called on this by Bill Clinton himself, whose image is featured in the ad. They’ve been called on it by Republican welfare policy experts. With the exception of Robert Rector, I don’t know anybody who defends the claim, yet they keep running the ads. They keep making the speeches. I think the calculation is that it doesn’t matter. This is too far down in the policy weeds for people to understand. After all, Barack Obama is the first black president, so of course he wants to give unconditional assistance to his brothers and sisters. It’s really a return to the race bating of the 1980s or earlier.
JH: Let’s turn to Medicare and try to separate some fact from fiction there. Romney’s campaign has often tried to reverse Obama’s strongest lines of attacks. It’s almost an 'I'm rubber you're glue' strategy. Here we have Paul Ryan -- Charles Pierce of Esquire calls him the “zombie-eyed granny-starver,” which I find hilarious -- he has a proposal to end Medicare as we know it. You have to say, “as we know it,” or Politifact will stick a severed horse’s head in your bed! He’ll replace it with these vouchers that seniors would then use to buy insurance on the private market.
And I just want to note here that at the heart of Ryan’s proposal is an insurance mandate. It’s an individual mandate for people to buy insurance, which is the worst kind of tyranny when a Democrat does it. The inescapable truth is that these vouchers will lose value over time. Their value will increase by just over the overall rate of inflation, but healthcare cost- inflation is much faster than that.
So team Romney is going around claiming that the Obama administration has raided over $700 billion from Medicare to pay for their healthcare reforms. What’s the story here?
EK: There are two things going on. One is as you suggest. The best defense is a good offense. The claim that actually Romney and Ryan are trying to save Medicare from an insolvency crisis. Again I think they’re counting on people really not understanding the incredibly complex policy details of how a so-called “premium support system” would work. Basically what you need to understand is that for people under 55 you’d be given an assurance of support for the right to buy insurance, either from the public sector or the private sector, but with no guarantee whatsoever that it will keep up with medical costs so that your benefits wouldn’t be heavily eroded over time.
The second thing that goes right back to the welfare attack is the claim that Republicans were making heavily in 2010 as well. Medicare cuts -- we can get to what they mean by Obama’s Medicare cuts -- are being used to take money away from virtuous retirees who worked their whole life and paid money into the system, and instead give the money to “those people.” The welfare people. Technically it’s the people who don’t qualify for Medicaid, but don’t have health insurance. It’s essentially the working poor. It’s those people who are not virtuous, hard-working retirees like you are. The ads are pretty blatant that Obamacare is not for you -- with a picture of an older white person on the screen. It’s pretty blatant.
It’s part of the general argument that Barack Obama is a radical redistributionist. He’s taking money away from older white folks to give to younger dark folks through unconditional welfare, through Obamacare, and through all these different means.
JH: Ryan has the same cuts in his budget, doesn’t he?
EK: Yeah, he’s trying to claim that he just assumed them as part of a budget baseline. Bark bark, woof woof. Romney is saying he’ll restore the cuts, but it’s important to understand what these cuts actually are. The single biggest chunk of the so-called “Obama Medicare cuts” is simply a reduction in this disproportionate subsidy the feds have been offering for what’s called Medicare Advantage plans, which is kind of a conservative pet rock policy idea that was included as part of a bipartisan bill years ago to let people use federal dollars to buy private insurance plans. This was on the theory that these plans would introduce competition into the system and reduce costs. Well, they haven’t. It’s been the opposite. These plans are significantly more expensive than traditional Medicare. So the administration quite properly said we’re going to cut back on the subsidies and not start offering more money for these plans than for traditional Medicare costs. That’s the biggest part of the cuts.
The second biggest part of the cuts is simply negotiated reductions in reimbursement rates for hospitals who accepted the deal because they’re going to have a lot more business under an expanded healthcare system, the Affordable Care Act. There are no cuts in benefits for anybody.
JH: That’s what I wanted to really stress. Not a red penny is coming out of seniors’ benefits.
EK: Unlike a premium support system in which you get what you get, and you make up the difference in the costs in between the premium support in what the government offers and what it costs to have an insurance. That erodes your benefits in a real way. The so-called Obamacare Medicare cuts don’t reduce anybody’s benefits. It turns out their cost estimates are wrong and it’s not going to hurt seniors.
JH: Another important thing to understand, and I don’t want to get too deep into the wonky weeds, but the Congressional Budget Office tells us that the Affordable Care Act, the so-called Obamacare, strengthens Medicare’s long term finances. It brings down the so-called payroll gap from something like 3.8% to 1.5% over the next 75 years. This is a huge, huge change that bolsters Medicare’s finances. This is a very key point to understand.
It seems like team Romney is just trying to muddy the waters. I think they hope that political reporters will just get bored by all this wonky stuff and end up reporting both sides are saying this, and at the end of the day voters won’t know who to blame. Do you think that’s going to work?
EK: I don’t know. It depends on which specific thing you’re talking about. I almost despair of any clarity on Medicare; however, it is worth remembering that voters have certain perceptions on what issues parties can be most trusted on. Republicans simply do not have a good track record of earning trust on Medicare and Social Security. So that’s probably the big tie-breaker.
On the welfare stuff I don’t know how long they can get away with just blatantly lying. At some point it really does go over the edge of being absolutely shameful, and perhaps the mainstream media will rouse itself to point it out if they keep running these ads. I personally hope a little bit more attention is paid to other aspects of the Ryan budget other than Medicare, particularly what they do to Medicaid. Ryan and Romney are totally in sync on this, turning it into a block grant. By all estimates this would reduce funding by about a third within ten years, and essentially turn over all eligibility decisions to the states. This will not only be devastating to the working poor -- it also includes the elimination of the Medicaid expansion that was included in the Affordable Care Act -- but also seniors. 6 million Americans living in nursing homes receive their primary support from the Medicaid program. It’s not just poor folks, it’s middle class old folks who rely on Medicaid. I think there’s sort of a political belief out there that it’s all about Medicare because Medicare goes to old people and old people vote. Let’s not worry about the poor people. Well we have a moral obligation to worry about the poor people, and by the way 6 million old folks depend on Medicaid. There’s no dispute whatsoever that the Romney and Ryan budget plans just hammer Medicaid.
JH: The cuts in the Ryan roadmap are so deep across the board that he really would defund almost all of government with the exceptions of defense, Social Security, and public healthcare.
Ryan and Romney are trying to insulate themselves by stressing that current retirees won’t be impacted by Ryan’s plan. This is not true. Jonathan Cohn at The New Republic flagged the fact that the Ryan plan repeals Obamacare in its entirety, and the Affordable Care Act is already giving seniors, current retirees, benefits like filling the so-called donut hole in Medicare Part D -- that’s the prescription drug coverage passed by George Bush. It’s eliminating out of pocket costs for annual wellness visits, some cancer screenings, and a variety of other preventative services.
EK: I would add in the fact that Medicaid pays Medicare premiums for lower income retirees.
JH: So we’re talking about a plan that would do an enormous amount of damage to current retirees. If the media would pick up on this we would be very appreciative.