Mitt Romney's presidential campaign has presented the political world with an important test. I'm eager to see whether we pass or fail.
First, a little background. Some Republican governors this year asked the Obama administration for some new flexibility on welfare standards -- the governors had some ideas about moving folks from welfare to work and needed the White House to sign off. Obama agreed -- existing work requirements would stay in place, but states, if they want to, can take advantage of new flexibility when it comes to experimenting with existing law.
This is the sort of shifting-power-to-the-states policy that Republicans are supposed to love. As of this morning, however, it's the basis for a new Mitt Romney attack ad.
It's important to realize this is as dishonest an ad as you'll ever see -- in 2012 or in any other campaign cycle.
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.
All Obama did is agree to Republican governors' request for flexibility. That's it. Indeed, perhaps the most jaw-dropping aspect of this is that Romney himself, during his one gubernatorial term, asked for the same kind of flexibility on welfare law that Obama agreed to last month. Romney, in other words, is attacking the president for doing what Romney asked the executive branch to do in 2005.
The entire line of attack is simply insane.
And that brings us back to the test for the political world.
How are we to respond to a campaign that deliberately deceives the public without shame? This lie about welfare policy comes on the heels of Romney's lie about voting rights in Ohio, which came on the heels of Romney's lies about the economy; which came on the heels of Romney's lies about health care; which came on the heels of Romney's lies about taxes.
The Republican nominee for president is working under the assumption that he can make transparently false claims, in writing and in campaign advertising, with impunity. Romney is convinced that there are no consequences for breathtaking dishonesty.
The test, then, comes down to a simple question: is he right?
The cynical response to an ad like this is that the lies are routine -- it's just something "everybody" in politics does. That's wrong. An ad this dishonest is a genuine scandal and it's time for political observers treat it as such. Reporters within earshot of the candidate shouldn't ask, "What about the gaffes?" They should ask, "Why are you lying about welfare policy?"
Also note the larger context: if Obama were as awful a president as Romney claims, the Republican attack machine wouldn't have to make stuff up -- the truth would be so brutal that voters would recoil and flock to the GOP candidate naturally. What does it say about Romney's strength as a candidate that he has to make up garbage and hope voters don't know the difference?
Postscript: I'd be remiss if I neglected to mention the racial subtext of an attack ad like this one. For decades, Republicans used "welfare" as part of a racially-charged message ("Democrats want to give white people's money to lazy black people who'll get checks for sitting around"). I can't speak to Romney's motivations -- I'm not a mind-reader -- but the language in the ad harkens back to the kind of ugly and racially divisive rhetoric we heard from GOP candidates for far too long.
It's quite likely Team Romney would prefer to spend the next several days debating whether or not his new attack ad is racist -- it'd beat talking about his secret tax returns -- but that's not much of an excuse.
Indeed, it's what arguably makes this ad, not just painfully dishonest, but also disgusting. If Romney has any shame left, now would be a good time for him to take a long look in the mirror and come to terms with what he's become.