Why Silly Attacks Are Actually Substantive This August

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Aug. 8 2012 6:54 PM

August Isn’t So Stupid This Year

If you look at it right, the tax-dodge and welfare attacks reveal true policy differences.

screenshot of Romney's welfare ad.
A scene from Mitt Romney's welfare ad

August is supposed to be the stupidest month of any presidential campaign. Voters, who have figured this out by now, are distracted by other news and waiting for Labor Day. Pollsters are waiting on the voters to tune in, so they can finally start releasing some accurate numbers, instead of the “registered voters” gruel they keep serving. In 2004, August became the Month of the Swift Boat Veteran. In 2008, the Obama “celebrity ad” distracted us until the Russia-Georgia conflict briefly became the most important foreign conflict of our time.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a reporter for Bloomberg Politics

This August is different. We are suddenly drowning in policy, things that are real-world relevant, stuff that costs money and keeps thousands of bureaucrats busy. It may not seem like that. It seems like the candidates have spent a week talking about Mitt Romney’s taxes and Barack Obama’s hatred of welfare reform. But to figure out what they’re really debating, you have to understand what sort of presidents they plan to be.

Start with the still-new welfare attacks. On July 12, the Department of Health and Human Services informed states that it would “consider waiver requests that strengthen the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program.” The waiver requests could be broad, because HHS would “authorize a state to test approaches and methods other than those set forth” in work requirements. You want a check? Prove you’re trying to find a job. The waivers might be granted as long as they found “more effective means of meeting the work goals of TANF.”

Advertisement

This was a massive policy shift, done after three years of study and state-to-feds-to-state discussion. Longtime students of welfare reform worried that the Obama administration had punched holes the 1996 reform law, because the work requirements weren’t supposed to be waivable in any way, lest some perfidious liberal-run states decide to ignore the law. And that takes us to Mitt Romney’s new ad, which claims that Obama is “dropping work requirements” and will “just send you your welfare check” if you’re lazy.

Is the Romney ad true? Not right now. The waiver requests haven’t even gone out, as state-government spokespeople keep telling me when I ask them for their action plans. What is true is that the Obama administration would allow states to mess around with welfare-to-work requirements, and Mitt Romney says he wouldn’t. Also true: The Obama administration will offer waivers to states that don’t want to implement the personal insurance mandate peg of the Affordable Care Act, as long as they figure out ways to get their residents insured. Romney’s said he’d offer the same waivers, but only as a stopgap measure toward repealing the whole law.

Boil that down. Vote for Barack Obama and you’ll have an administration that will help liberal states enact more liberal policies: single-payer health care in Vermont, experimental welfare-to-work requirements in Hawaii. Vote for Mitt Romney and you won’t get that. It’s not complicated. Actually, no, it’s better than that. It’s so open-ended that it can survive the he-said-she-said-lie-o-meter Tantalus of campaign journalism. When PolitiFact looked at the Romney ad, it debunked the “just send you your welfare check” line. But it couldn’t prove that the work requirements had been spared. “That’s for a court to decide,” wrote PolitiFact’s Molly Moorhead. And then she gave Romney a “Pants on Fire” rating anyway.

That’s the problem with Pants-on-Fire-ism. You can fact-check a lot of things, but you can’t quite fact-check a theory about how a policy might work. You also can’t fact-check a claim that’s been made about evidence no one’s allowed to see.

That brings us to Harry Reid’s yarn about a “Bain investor” who told him that Romney “didn’t pay any taxes for 10 years.” The entire professional fact-check squad has called Reid a liar while admitting that he may not actually be a liar. “Without seeing Romney’s taxes, we cannot definitively prove Reid incorrect,” wrote the Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler. “But tax experts say his claim is highly improbable.” Well, there you go. Four Pinocchios.

But look at how Kessler got there. He made a Homerian journey through the cliffs and shoals of tax law, and found that Bain Capital allowed employees “to co-invest retirement funds in takeover deals,” that “61 percent of high-income returns with no tax liability stemmed from tax-exempt interest,” and that Romney himself “chaired the audit committee of Marriott International when it engaged in a highly aggressive tax shelter.”

We have not evolved highly enough to gaze into Harry Reid’s mind, but we can make an assumption: He wanted the media to ask more questions about tax laws that favor the rich. That’s a policy dispute, folks. It’s at the center of Barack Obama’s campaign. It’s a major Republican critique of the first three years of the president’s term: Why didn’t he take tax reform seriously when Bowles-Simpson asked him to?

A good amount of Romney-Reid-Bain-gate coverage has actually delved into the tax issues. The rest of the coverage has been of the dueling-angry-quotes variety, but that can’t be helped. The Washington Post condemned Reid for “smear tactics not unlike those of Joseph McCarthy,” which makes sense if you think that refusing to release your tax returns is like being unfairly accused of membership in the Communist Party. It’s a nice idea, that the majority leader of the United States Senate should operate under some rules of decorum about truth, even if it is only randomly applied.

There’s a kind of beauty to the Reid and welfare stories, though. They can only be explained or debunked with torturous policy analysis. Bill Clinton’s response to the welfare story (he appears in Romney’s ad as a sort of beacon of bipartisan hope and change) was a long explanation of how welfare waivers were actually implemented in the 1996 reform. “In Clinton fashion,” snarked Politico, “brevity is not at play.” Readers could skip the snark and read more about the policy. Not bad for a slow, stupid August.

  Slate Plus
Working
Dec. 18 2014 4:49 PM Slate’s Working Podcast: Episode 17 Transcript Read what David Plotz asked a middle school principal about his workday.