Just over the last two weeks, Mitt Romney's presidential campaign has released three television ads and two online videos devoted exclusively to -- you guessed it -- welfare. The issue was a complete non-factor in the 2012 race until the Republican decided the racially-charged, peripheral issue could be exploited by telling a transparent lie.
The latest video was released overnight.
In this new clip, viewers hear from Danny Vargas, the former National Chairman of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly, who again accuses President Obama of removing work requirements from federal welfare law.
In this plane of reality, President Obama did not remove work requirements from federal welfare law. The Romney campaign simply made this up. The facts are unambiguous: governors asked the Obama administration for some flexibility on the existing welfare law, and the White House said that'd be fine, so long as the work requirement isn't weakened. It's consistent with the policy endorsed by many Republican governors, including Romney himself, just six years ago.
And yet, it's the basis for a ridiculous lie, predicated on Romney's assumption that voters are easily fooled, and his campaign will pay no price because the media won't call him on it.
For his part, President Obama weighed in on the subject yesterday, and as Greg Sargent noted, it was "the first time Obama himself has charged that virtually Romney's entire campaign is based on a 'centerpiece' that's flat out false." Take a look at these comments from the president's press briefing:
"I don't think that Governor Romney is somehow responsible for the death of the woman that was portrayed in that ad. But keep in mind this is an ad that I didn't approve, I did not produce, and as far as I can tell, has barely run. I think it ran once.
"Now, in contrast, you've got Governor Romney creating as a centerpiece of his campaign this notion that we're taking the work requirement out of welfare, which every single person here who's looked at it says is patently false. What he's arguing is somehow we have changed the welfare requirement -- the work requirement in our welfare laws. And, in fact, what's happened was that my administration, responding to the requests of five governors, including two Republican governors, agreed to approve giving them, those states, some flexibility in how they manage their welfare rolls as long as it produced 20 percent increases in the number of people who are getting work.
"So, in other words, we would potentially give states more flexibility to put more people back to work, not to take them off the work requirement under welfare. Everybody who has looked at this says what Governor Romney is saying is absolutely wrong. Not only are his super PACs running millions of dollars' worth of ads making this claim; Governor Romney himself is approving this and saying it on the stump.
"So the contrast I think is pretty stark. They can run the campaign that they want, but the truth of the matter is you can't just make stuff up. That's one thing you learn as President of the United States."
That certainly sounds reasonable. In theory, part of leadership is realizing that you "can't just make stuff up."
But Romney believes he can ignore this maxim and win anyway. He's working under the assumption that the political rules have changed, we've entered a new era of post-truth rhetorical norms, and there are no longer punishments for deliberately saying the opposite of the reality.
Indeed, we've created a system of incentives -- Romney will benefit by crafting a racially-charged lie, which has no bearing in fact, but which rallies his base, for whom the distinction between fact and fiction isn't terribly important. At the same time, the lie will begin to permeate the mainstream's understanding of current events, thanks to reporting that tells voters, "Romney claims Obama gutted welfare law; Obama disagrees."
Greg Sargent added, "It's true that there's serious truth-stretching on both sides.... But it remains the case that we are seeing nothing from the Obama side that's anything like what Romney is attempting. Romney right now is premising one of the central arguments of his whole campaign on a complete lie."
And with each passing day, Romney appears increasingly certain he can get away with it.
Michael Tomasky explained today, This is not normal. Normal is to stretch the truth.... But the Romney welfare ads have no grain of truth at all."
Romney is testing American politics, pushing past boundaries, raising uncomfortable questions about just what kind of man he really is. Eleven weeks before Election Day, however, Romney just doesn't seem to give a damn.