Yesterday, Mitt Romney had a fair amount of success moving the focus away from his secret tax returns. He put a blatant, demonstrable lie about welfare reform at the center of his presidential campaign, falsely accusing President Obama of ending the work requirement in President Clinton's 1996 welfare reform law.
Clinton didn't get in front of a camera, but he did issue a statement late yesterday.
Governor Romney released an ad today alleging that the Obama administration had weakened the work requirements of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act. That is not true. [...]
The recently announced waiver policy was originally requested by the Republican governors of Utah and Nevada to achieve more flexibility in designing programs more likely to work in this challenging environment. The Administration has taken important steps to ensure that the work requirement is retained and that waivers will be granted only if a state can demonstrate that more people will be moved into work under its new approach. The welfare time limits, another important feature of the 1996 act, will not be waived.
The Romney ad is especially disappointing because, as governor of Massachusetts, he requested changes in the welfare reform laws that could have eliminated time limits altogether. We need a bipartisan consensus to continue to help people move from welfare to work even during these hard times, not more misleading campaign ads.
Let's also keep the larger pattern in mind. Several months ago, the Romney campaign conceded they intended to use Bill Clinton -- who continues to enjoy very high approval ratings -- against President Obama. A Romney aide said the move is "devised as a trick to drive a wedge."
And in the months since, Romney and his allies have continued to pursue this fairly aggressively. As Greg Sargent explained yesterday, "The basic idea is to portray Clinton as the 'good' kind of Democrat, in contrast with the unrepentant radical 'bad' Democrat Obama supposedly represents. We also saw this trick in the Rove-founded Crossroads ads that used distorted Clinton quotes about taxes to portray Obama as far more zealous about tax hikes than Clinton, even though the latter raised taxes on the wealthy, just as Obama wants to do."
For those of us who remember the 1990s, the notion that a Republican presidential campaign would praise Clinton and hold him out as some kind of ideal model is kind of hilarious.
But putting that aside, the Romney campaign is taking a serious risk with this tack, and it's likely to backfire.
For one thing, Romney's strategy is based, of course, on ridiculous lies. The more the Republican candidate says things about Clinton that aren't true, the more the former president will be inclined to issue statements calling him out, just as he did yesterday.
For another, Romney is making a serious mistake building up Clinton as a credible, respected voice who Americans should not only remember fondly, but listen to when it comes to politics and policy. In other words, Romney's "wedge" strategy is premised on elevating the Democratic icon on purpose.
Regardless of the fact that the differences between Clinton and Obama are effectively non-existent, what exactly is Romney's plan when Clinton starts campaigning aggressively on Obama's behalf, delivering a major primetime address in support of Obama during the Democratic National Convention?*
Or more to the point, if Romney is spending much of 2012 telling voters that Clinton is reliable and worthy of respect, won't that be a problem when the Big Dog is urging voters to rally behind Barack Obama and reject Romney's candidacy?
* Update: It looks like the nice folks at NBC's First Read were thinking very much along the same lines.