Friday, August 10, 2012

The Ad Wars continue...

There's been a lot of hyperventilating on the part of the anti-Romney forces about the vicious "lies" that Romney's campaign is telling. Here's Steve Benen, at Rachel Maddow's blog, with a typical example.
For those who can't watch clips online, the ad shows President Clinton signing welfare reform into law in 1996, "requiring work for welfare." The spot then argues, however, that President Obama "quietly announced a plan to gut welfare reform by dropping work requirements." The voiceover tells viewers, "Under Obama's plan, you wouldn't have to work and wouldn't have to train for a job. They just send you your welfare check.... and welfare to work goes back to being plain old welfare."

We then learn, "Mitt Romney will restore the work requirement because it works."

Romney's lying. He's not spinning the truth to his advantage; he's not hiding in a gray area between fact and fiction; he's just lying. The law hasn't been "gutted"; the work requirement hasn't been "dropped." Stations that air this ad are disseminating an obvious, demonstrable lie.
The ad in question is here.


The text:
In 1996 President Clinton and a bipartisan Congress helped end welfare as we know it by requiring work for welfare.
But on July 12, President Obama quietly announced a plan to gut welfare reform by dropping work requirements. Under Obama's plan, you wouldn't have to work and wouldn't have to train for a job, they just send you your welfare check. And welfare to work goes back to being plain old welfare.
Mitt Romney will restore the work requirement, because it works.
So, is the Romney ad lying? Is it "an obvious, demonstrable lie"?

Uh, no. It is not.

Obviously, the first and last sentences should be fairly non-controversial; it's that middle passage that has people up in arms.  So let's look at it.
But on July 12, President Obama quietly announced a plan to gut welfare reform by dropping work requirements.
What is the "fact" in that sentence that would qualify as a lie? Not the beginning, because on July 12, President Obama did, in fact, make an announcement about federal welfare benefits. And it was quiet - no Rose Garden ceremony, no press conference. His administration issued a letter, declaring, in part, "the Secretary’s willingness to exercise her waiver authority under section 1115 of the Social Security Act to allow states to test alternative and innovative strategies, policies, and procedures that are designed to improve employment outcomes for needy families."

The question then becomes, did the Obama administration, in the process of doing so, "gut welfare reform." If it did not, then it's a lie. If it did, then it's not.

The biggest problem with calling that a lie is that it's not a technically precise term. If I say that someone "guts" a deer, that means something. If I say that someone "guts" a law, that means something different. The former is a statement of fact, the latter is a metaphor, a term of commentary. Obviously, those on the left, many of whom were upset with Bill Clinton for signing the 1996 Welfare Reform Act in the first place, disagree with the characterization.

That does not make it a lie (unless Romney does not believe it and says it anyway).

The ad continues, saying that
Under Obama's plan, you wouldn't have to work and wouldn't have to train for a job, they just send you your welfare check. And welfare to work goes back to being plain old welfare.
This part is a little more problematic. It is not, on its face, true - the change does not explicitly create that situation. Nothing in the letter explicitly calls for a removal of work requirements. But it's not necessarily false, either. Whether that ends up being true for some welfare recipients depends entirely upon the contents of waivers requested and waivers granted. What is clearly true, is that Congress and the President had the ability to give the Secretary of Health and Human Services the power to act on waiver requests when they enacted the law, and specifically declined to do so. Despite the fact that many Governors request that feature. They intended to tie the hands of future Secretaries of HHS, and did so. According to Dick Morris,
In the negotiations that preceded the passage of this landmark legislation — in which I participated heavily — then-Senate Republican Majority Leader Trent Lott (Miss.) was particularly suspicious that future HHS secretaries might dilute the work requirement, just as the administration has done. He worked overtime with counsel to make sure that education and training would not be used to substitute for the work provision.
Robert Rector:
Section 1115 states that “the Secretary may waive compliance with any of the requirements” of specified parts of various laws. But this is not an open-ended authority: Any provision of law that can be waived under section 1115 must be listed in section 1115 itself. The work provisions of the TANF program are contained in section 407 (entitled, appropriately, “mandatory work requirements”). Critically, this section, as well as most other TANF requirements, are deliberately not listed in section 1115; they are not waiveable. In establishing TANF, Congress deliberately exempted or shielded nearly all of the TANF program from the section 1115 waiver authority. They did not want the law to be rewritten at the whim of Health and Human Services (HHS) bureaucrats. Of the roughly 35 sections of the TANF law, only one is listed as waiveable under section 1115. This is section 402.
So, was the 1996 Welfare Reform Act "gutted" by the Obama administration? (Whether or not it even has the legal authority to do what it's claiming it has the authority to do is open to debate.) That looks like legitimate commentary to me. I tend to agree with it. But even if I didn't, it's obviously characterization and commentary, rather than "lying." The strongest negative that you can legitimately claim for this ad is "mis-characterization."

And I wouldn't even agree with that one...

 Here's some more excellent analysis, this time from Mickey Kaus, a rational man of the left:
As of several years ago, the details of these work requirements turned out to matter less than the general signal they sent, that no-strings welfare was over and even low-income single moms were supposed to work. As a result, the welfare rolls shrank so rapidly (roughly by half) that many states never faced the detailed work requirements (since they got credit for everyone who left welfare).
But of course the work requirements were part of what sent that general “signal.”
To the extent the administration’s action erodes the actual and perceived toughness of the work requirements, which it does, it sends the opposite and wrong signal.
More from Kaus:
But in legal terms, “guts” isn’t inapt. Congress went put a lot of effort into resisting efforts by governors (including GOP governors), bureaucrats, paleoliberals, and non-profit softies to water down the work requirements (by allowing, for example, extended “job search” or BS-type activities like self-esteem classes, and more generally by emphasizing what will help “place” existing recipients in “good” private jobs instead of deterring possible future recipients from making the choices that land them on welfare).

The authors of the law thought they’d restricted HHS’ authority to undermine the work requirements. Comes now HHS secretary Sebelius to claim she has broad authority to dispense with all those requirements through waivers, subject only to her opinion as to what is “likely to assist in promoting the objectives” of the welfare law. TNR‘s Ed Kilgore loyally declares ,”The Obama administration has not changed the architecture of the 1996 welfare reform law at all.” But that’s wrong. The legal architecture of the work requirements has been altered dramatically. Old system: Congress writes the requirements, which are … requirements. New system: Sebelius does what she wants–but, hey, you can trust her!
So, in the end, whether you agree with the commentary or think that it mischaracterizes the situation depends on your beliefs about Barack Obama. As Stanley Kurtz says,
Much of the debate over the claims in Romney’s new ad hinge on what you think Obama’s long-term intentions for welfare reform actually are. Either you believe the president when he and his representatives say that this change to the work requirements is just a tiny tweak that doesn’t mean much, or you believe conservative policy experts like Robert Rector, who say that all that talk is a smokescreen for an attempt to gut the core of the 1996 bill.
To resolve this conflict, voters need to form a judgement about Obama’s long-term intentions. And to make that decision, Obama’s leftist history on this issue is pertinent information. In short, the president’s past matters, as the Romney campaign itself pointed out when it raised his 1996 statements in opposition to welfare reform. Have a look at what else Obama was doing that year, and the point becomes stronger still.
The media’s refusal to report the new information confirming that Obama did in fact join a leftist third party in 1996 clearly matters.

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