Santorum, Romney campaign noses grow longer over welfare-to-work

Former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, of Pennsylvania, waves to delegates at the Republican National Convention, in Tampa, Fla.
Former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, of Pennsylvania, waves to delegates at the Republican National Convention, in Tampa, Fla.
Posted: August 30, 2012

THE RECENT CLAIMS by Mitt Romney's campaign about President Obama's welfare-to-work program have been awarded the top dishonesty rating of "four Pinocchios" from the Washington Post and called "wrong" by CNN, a "pants on fire" lie by the Pulitzer Prize-winning Politifact and "simply not true" by Factcheck.org.

But Tuesday night at the Republican National Committee in Tampa, Rick Santorum called those false claims something else: a main talking point.

The former Pennsylvania senator - who came the closest to derailing Romney during the 2012 GOP primaries - picked up a key Romney attack line when he told delegates that "this summer [Obama] showed us once again he believes in government handouts and dependency by waiving the work requirement for welfare.

"I helped write the welfare-reform bill," Santorum continued. "We made the law crystal clear - no president can waive the work requirement. But as with his refusal to enforce our immigration laws, President Obama rules like he is above the law."

The prime-time speaking gig was a reward for Santorum - who has given every sign that he'll run in 2016 if Romney falters - for dropping out and endorsing the standard bearer. He touched on familiar themes from last winter's campaign, insisting that "marriage is disappearing in places where government dependency is highest."

But his most controversial new remarks hit a once-obscure bureaucratic change in the federal rules governing the landmark 1996 welfare overhaul that aimed to place people who'd been collecting government relief checks into productive jobs.

It was completely unnoticed by the media and the public - until the Romney campaign put out a TV ad that charged President Obama with wanting to "gut welfare reform by dropping work requirements" and simply sending checks to the unemployed.

The Romney commercial shocked welfare-policy experts. They say that the Obama administration rule change is a waiver aimed at reducing red tape so that states that administer welfare programs could put more people on payrolls, not fewer. Even Romney himself sought such a change when he was Massachusetts governor.

"Basically, it's not true; it's inaccurate and misleading," said Elizabeth Ananat, an assistant professor of public policy and economics at Duke University who studies poverty. She added that the Republican effort to take what had been a bipartisan policy push and "turn it into a cudgel is unfortunate - it's election-year politics."

Politifact also said that the claim "inflames old resentments about able-bodied adults sitting around collecting public assistance."

More-partisan pundits have had harsher words for the GOP attacks, calling them a "dog-whistle" to appeal to some white working-class voters by linking a black president to stereotypes about welfare recipients not wanting to work.

In addition, media critics have wondered why more news outlets aren't more aggressive in calling out a presidential campaign that keeps repeating a called-out lie. Fair enough: When Santorum alleged that Obama is getting rid of welfare-work requirements, he simply wasn't telling the truth.


Contact Will Bunch at bunchw@phillynews.com or 215-854-2957. Follow him on Twitter @Will_Bunch. Read his blog at Attytood.com.

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