TAMPA—Republican attacks on President Obama's welfare policy are part of a "shockingly transparent" campaign to play the race card in the 2012 presidential campaign, says Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz. They are, she says, "a dog whistle for voters who consider race when casting their ballot."
The Florida lawmaker's take on the sensitive issue marks the first time a high official in the Obama camp has weighed in on the racial overtones of the welfare attacks.
Wasserman Schultz, a Democratic House member from Florida, was asked about the recent welfare attacks during a breakfast session with U.S. News reporters Thursday morning. She pointed out that welfare reform is an odd issue for a campaign to focus on because not only is it not on voters' minds, but the Romney campaign's accusations have been universally discredited by independent fact checkers. And she also referenced Romney's birther crack last week about no one having ever asked to see his birth certificate. These data points, she argues, are racially coded:
Are there a lot of people that say, 'You know what, the number one issue that I want to hear about from either presidential candidate is about his policy on welfare reform?' I mean, why else—it's so shockingly transparent—why else would Mitt Romney make a supposedly casual joke about the president's place of birth, you know, juxtaposed against his own place of birth? Why else would he spend millions of dollars of Mitt Romney campaign money talking about—putting out a lie, and then repeating it over and over and over when there isn't a single fact checking organization that has said that it's accurate, that it has any accuracy—in fact it's the opposite—except to be a dog whistle for voters who consider race when casting their ballot?
She added that the Romney campaign and its allies are "now throwing out coded language to try to subliminally—and sometimes overtly—make the public believe that it's President Obama that's been the vicious attack dog and been running the negative campaign."
What's behind the racially coded attacks? "They see the president's popularity and they see his favorability ratings," she says. "They are doing the same kind of polling that we're doing. To me everything they're doing is so transparent."
Indeed, according to the most recent Washington Post/ABC News poll found that 61 percent of registered voters find Obama to be more "likable" and "friendly" than Romney while only 27 percent think the former Massachusetts governor is more so. A Gallup/ USA Today survey released Thursday has the gap at 54-31.
And there's more. As National Journal's Ron Brownstein has reported, the race is showing strong signs of polarizing along the lines of, umm, race, with the president's support among whites dropping, while Romney's collapses among minorities. ( One recent poll had zero black respondents—as in no one at all—who said they plan to vote for Romney.) It's not a stretch at all to say that the welfare attacks, which the campaign not only conjured out of thin air but fabricated from whole cloth, are an attempt to push hot buttons of blue collar workers.
This isn't a startling assertion at this point. National Journal's Ron Fournier, for example, put it bluntly to Romney adviser Ron Kaufman earlier this week. Speaking of blue collar workers like those he grew up with in Macomb County, Mich., Fournier said that "one of their hot button issues are things like welfare reform. And when there's an ad up on the air that is technically inaccurate that says that President Obama is cutting back on the work for welfare rules—that's pushing that button, that's playing to that racial prejudice."
Fournier subsequently wrote a thoughtful piece explaining "why (and how) Mitt Romney is playing the race card with his patently false welfare ad."
Kaufman flatly denied the assertion of racial button-pushing, telling Fournier that he was the one playing the race card. Indeed neither campaign has been willing to openly discuss the issue. The Romney campaign, for example, didn't comment on the Wasserman Schultz race remarks. And asked about whether the welfare attacks had a racial subtext, for example, Obama campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki last week said that "I wouldn't characterize it that way."
The campaign wouldn't, but now the chairwoman of the national committee would.