A former Clinton administration official — who famously opposed the 1996 welfare reform law and publicly split with his longtime friend Bill Clinton — is adding himself to the list of experts who decry Mitt Romney’s attacks on President Obama’s welfare policy as false.
“The Romney attack is a complete invention,” Peter Edelman, a professor at Georgetown University Law Center and former Assistant Secretary for Bill Clinton’s Department of Health and Human Services, told TPM. He labeled it a “distortion” based on a “complete fabrication” in service of “pure politics.”
Edelman — who along with his wife Marian Wright Edelman, president and founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, had been close friends and collaborators of Bill and Hillary Clinton for years — resigned in protest upon the enactment of the bipartisan 1996 welfare reform law, which slapped work participation requirements and time limits on welfare recipients, and handed states significant authority over the program.
Edelman’s agonizingly personal public denunciation of the strict, then-new welfare reforms was centered on what he argued would be their punitive effect on poor people. But the HHS waiver option put forth last month — which Democratic and Republican governors requested — that will help states develop alternative ways to put welfare recipients to work is a no-brainer, Edelman says.
“The administration’s move on work requirements is just common sense,” Edelman said in an email. “It’s about allowing states to do work-related initiatives that are more effective than the constraints of the current law. What we want is for people to get off welfare by getting a job. It is NOT, repeat, NOT undermining the work requirements of the TANF law [Temporary Assistance for Needy Families], which are requirements for work activities while the person is receiving TANF.”
The Romney campaign has spent millions of dollars airing multiple ads in swing states accusing Obama of “gutting” the law, and isn’t backing away even as a growing roster of fact-checkers and traditional journalists debunk its premise.
Romney has so far released five ads attacking Obama on the welfare waivers — three of which his campaign and the RNC are spending millions of dollars airing in swing states. GOP operatives are bullish on the ability of the attack to change white working-class voters’ core perceptions of Obama.
In addition to calling out its false premise, traditional journalists are joining liberal commentators in needling the Romney campaign about the racial undertones of the insinuation that Obama wants to hand out more welfare checks.
National Journal editor Ron Fournier, former Washington Bureau Chief of the Associated Press, accused a Romney adviser of “playing the race card.” At a Republican convention forum he said the ads are “pushing that button … playing to that racial prejudice. And I’m wondering: are you guys doing that on purpose?”
Earlier this week, liberal MSNBC host Chris Matthews aggressively directed the same accusation at RNC Chairman Reince Priebus. “It is an embarrassment to your party to play that card,” he said. “You are playing that ethnic card there.”
Conservative MSNBC host Joe Scarborough said he was “stunned” to find, after researching the issue, that Romney’s claim is “completely false.”
For Edelman, the attacks are painful to watch despite his initial misgivings about the law, one of the goals of which he now defends even as he maintains that it’s “deeply flawed.”
“This is totally noncontroversial. No one should disagree with it,” Edelson said of the waivers. “This is pure politics coming from the Romney side.”
Sahil Kapur is a congressional reporter for TPM. He previously covered politics and public policy for numerous publications including The Guardian and The Huffington Post. He can be reached at sahil [at] talkingpointsmemo.com.