The polarizing and emotional issue of welfare isn't dead after all.
The welfare system was drastically changed 16 years ago, and few politicians have been interested in debating the issue since then. But Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, hoping to appeal to middle-class voters who oppose federal giveaways, resurrected the theme this week. He has argued that President Barack Obama is weakening the rules of welfare that were enacted in the landmark 1996 reform bill by allowing government checks to be sent to recipients who don't work. Romney says this means Obama favors a "culture of dependency" while the real solution is to "restore a culture of good, hard work."
Romney's campaign also is running a television ad which says, "Under Obama's plan, you wouldn't have to work and wouldn't have to train for a job. They just send you a welfare check and welfare-to-work goes back to being plain old welfare. Mitt Romney will restore the work requirement."
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said the ad and Romney's remarks were "blatantly dishonest."
And Bill Clinton, who was president when the reforms were enacted, issued a statement disputing the accuracy of Romney's allegations. Clinton said the Obama administration has moved to allow some states to waive elements of the program but these changes are designed to give states "more flexibility in designing programs more likely to work in this challenging environment," not to eliminate the work requirements. "The welfare time limits, another important feature of the 1996 act, will not be waived," Clinton points out. "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."
But Romney spokesman Ryan Williams said, "President Obama was a vocal opponent of the innovative, bipartisan welfare reforms that President Clinton and a Republican Congress passed in 1996. His administration has now undermined the central premise of those reforms by gutting the welfare-to-work requirement." And Andrea Saul, another Romney adviser, said Wednesday, "I guess President Obama's dismantling of welfare as we know it should come as no surprise, considering President Obama has been a consistent opponent of the law."
The debate over welfare isn't the first time in the 2012 campaign that traditional wedge issues—those that divide and polarize—have been raised. Earlier this year, Democrats and Republicans got into intense arguments over immigration and contraception. Gun control is also likely to re-emerge as an issue after the recent mass shootings in Colorado and Wisconsin.
Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He writes the daily blog, "Ken Walsh's Washington," and is the author of "The Presidency" column for the U.S. News Weekly. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Facebook and Twitter.