The Return of the Welfare Queen

Republicans see class warfare as a winning message, but they risk hurting the blue-collar whites the party depends on.
Steve Brodner

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The welfare queen, she has risen.

Spawned by Ronald Reagan to turn blue-collar whites against the Democratic Party, then buried by Bill Clinton with a law "ending welfare as we know it," she's been excavated under the first African-American president as Republicans inveigh against the costs of health insurance and food stamps for the poor.

Twenty-five Republican-led states have—astoundingly—rebuffed billions of federal dollars under Barack Obama's signature healthcare law to offer Medicaid insurance to more poor people. To justify this unprecedented rejection of federal relief, these governors and state lawmakers say they just do not believe Washington will keep its promise to pick up the tab. Republicans in Congress are egging them on, denouncing Obamacare's disastrous launch as proof of the arrogance and folly of big government.

But all of this opposition carries an unmistakable undertone of class warfare, a theme easy to exploit in states such as Kentucky, packed with low-income white voters who have a strong distaste for the federal government. To hear the rhetoric coming from Capitol Hill and the campaign trail, Medicaid and food-stamp recipients are a bunch of shiftless freeloaders living high on king crab legs and free health care, all on the backs of hardworking Americans. 

Medicaid expansion is "the principal reason your kids' college tuition is going up," Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky charged at a press conference here.

New Medicaid recipients "have no personal responsibility for their health," said state Senator Joni Ernst of Iowa, a Republican running for the U.S. Senate, in a memo from the state capital.

And in Louisiana, Senate candidate and Republican Representative Bill Cassidy hypothesized about a single woman forced to pay high premiums under Obamacare who thinks her neighbor could make more money. "But he would rather work fewer hours or work for cash or, perhaps, live out of wedlock so that he and his girlfriend both qualify for the taxpayer-provided free insurance," Cassidy wrote in a newspaper column.

The tirades don't stop at Medicaid.

The rhetoric about rewarding indolence is also pervading the debate over the farm bill, passed with subsidies for big agriculture—but no food-stamp funding for the first time in four decades. Representative Louie Gohmert of Texas said he's heard "so many times" from constituents standing in line at the grocery store behind a shopper buying king-crab legs. "Then he sees the food-stamp card pulled out and provided. He looks at the king-crab legs and looks at his ground meat and realizes because he does pay income tax, he doesn't get more back than he pays in. He is actually helping to pay for the king-crab legs when he can't pay for them for himself."

The mythical welfare queen was accused of driving a Cadillac and pumping out babies to keep the government checks coming; under the "food-stamp president," as Republican Newt Gingrich dubbed Obama, she (or he) nets free healthcare and expensive shellfish.

"Newscasts tell stories of young surfers who aren't working but cash their food stamps in for lobster," wrote Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy in a memo before the House vote, referring to a California beach bum who flaunted his food-stamp-financed lifestyle on Fox News. "Costing taxpayers $80 billion a year, middle-class families struggling to make ends meet themselves foot the bill for a program that has gone well beyond a safety net for children, seniors, and the disabled."

The facts defy the stereotypes. The largest group of food-stamp recipients is white; 45 percent of all beneficiaries are children; and most people eligible for Medicaid are families with children in which at least one person in the household has a job. But pitting makers against takers is simply smart, hardball politics for some Republicans. McConnell, Cassidy, and Ernst all face GOP primaries that will be largely decided by a mostly white conservative base that hates the welfare state.

Same with the potential Republican presidential contenders in 2016. Governors who turned down the Medicaid money, such as Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, Rick Perry of Texas, and Scott Walker of Wisconsin, have a leg up in GOP primaries over possible rivals who accepted the federal aid, such as Chris Christie of New Jersey and John Kasich of Ohio.

Class warfare can work in a primary. But, ultimately, Republicans' scorn for antipoverty programs hinders the party's efforts to expand beyond its conservative base. Women and minorities disproportionately make up the "47 percent" that Mitt Romney notoriously derided for depending on government assistance. Even more significant, blocking Medicaid expansion and food stamps hurts the blue-collar whites the GOP increasingly depends on at the polls, cracking the door open to Democrats to compete for their votes. (Fact: When you sign up for Obamacare, you can also register to vote.)

"Most people believe the banks, the mortgage companies, Wall Street, and the insurance companies are screwing them over, and if a year from now they think the Democratic Party has their back, that could change the conversation," said Tom Perriello, president of the liberal Center for American Progress Action Fund. "If we can get past all of the misinformation and the race politics, we may have a chance."

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Beth Reinhard is a political correspondent for National Journal.

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