When Wonks Attack! Romney Welfare Ad Causes Kerfuffle at Convention Event

Wonky policy event with Romney adviser devolves into hot-blooded argument.

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TAMPA---A tamely-titled event during the Republican National Convention in Tampa Tuesday, "The Election in Numbers: A Conversation with Leading Pollsters," turned out not to be so tame at all.

The event, co-hosted by the National Journal and The Atlantic, began with a conversation between Journal editor Ron Fournier and senior Romney campaign adviser Ron Kaufman.

Though the first few minutes were spent on niceties, Fournier soon brought the conversation around to a hot-button topic: the Romney campaign's new series of welfare ads. The ads say that the Obama administration ended work requirements for Americans in the welfare program, effectively "gutting welfare reform."

Fact checkers have largely debunked the premise of the ad, pointing out that the work requirements in fact have not been ended.

But Fournier did not just tell Kaufman the ad was wrong, he also accused the Romney campaign of "playing the race card." Fournier, who is from Detroit, Mich., said that welfare is a hot button issue in his hometown, and that this ad was "pushing that button ... playing to that racial prejudice. And I'm wondering: are you guys doing that on purpose?"

Kaufman, a long-time Republican lobbyist, kept his cool, saying he "couldn't disagree more" with the race card accusation, and that "relaxing" the work requirement was "not a good thing for anybody," whether they were a minority or not.

Fournier is not the first to have made the race connection to Romney's welfare ads, or talked about how welfare and race are linked. A number of studies have found that how Americans see race and how much they dislike welfare are directly related. "Most white Americans believe that blacks are less committed to the work ethic than are whites, and this belief is strongly related to opposition to welfare," wrote Martin Gilens in his 1999 book Why Americans Hate Welfare: Race, Media, and the Politics of Antipoverty Policy.

But Kaufman says that correlation does not mean that the Romney campaign played the race card. The Romney adviser said the ad was important for all Americans who need a job "whether they are white, brown, black, blue or green."

"The ad is wrong," Fournier reiterated to the audience. "But I respect him [Kaufman] so once I say it, I'm not going to jump on him and start throwing punches on him."

That might have been the end of the fight, as the next questioner moved on to a less controversial topic.

But then the microphone was given to Bill Evers of the Hoover Institution, a conservative think tank. Evers came to the Romney campaign's defense, arguing that it was not legal for the executive branch to initiate any waivers. When a moderator of the event pushed back, pointing out that governors had requested the waivers, not the Obama administration, Evers shouted from the back of the room: "It's against the law and don't say otherwise!"

A few others in the room supported Evers' argument, saying the welfare ads were "a lot more clear" and a lot less wrong than fact checkers had led people to believe.

"With all due respect," said Fournier, calmly, ending the debate. "To say it's a lot less wrong than you think it is ... that's like saying a girl is a lot less pregnant than you think she is. Wrong is wrong."