"Mitt Romney is playing the race card with his patently false welfare ad," National Journal's Ron Fournier confidently proclaimed at the Republican National Convention last week. "Internal GOP polling and focus groups offer convincing evidence that the welfare ad is hurting Obama," he reported.
Fournier continued, "The welfare issue, generally speaking, triggers anger in white blue-collar voters that is easily directed toward Democrats."
Fournier is right. The 'welfare issue' does trigger anger in blue-collar voters -- but not because it's racist. The ad works because many Americans feel that Obama's welfare policies are just plain unfair.
Set aside for a moment the question of whether Romney's ad is "patently false," as Fournier claims (and he is wrong). Instead, let's take a step back and look at Obama's history on welfare policy.
When Obama was a state senator from Illinois, he said, on multiple occasions, that he did not support President Clinton's 1996 welfare-to-work law. He said he would have voted against it if he had had the opportunity. More importantly, as president, Obama has consistently expanded the welfare state at every opportunity.
His stimulus bill reversed the fiscal foundation of the 1996 welfare reform law by paying states bonuses to increase, not decrease, the number of people on their welfare rolls. That same bill both boosted food stamp payments and eliminated work requirements for many in the food stamp program.
Obama also loosened the eligibility requirements for unemployment benefits, boosted unemployment benefit payments and extended unemployment benefit payments to a record 99 weeks.
As a result of these policies, more Americans now receive government benefits than ever before. Between 2008 and 2010, food stamp spending grew by $4 billion. The total number of Americans on food stamps increased from 28.4 million to 40.3 million in the same period. And most importantly, the number of able-bodied adults with no dependents getting food stamps nearly quadrupled, from 1 million to 3.8 million.
All told, more than 100 million Americans -- about one-third of the country -- now receive benefits from at least one government program. These are the facts that the Romney welfare ad is tapping into.
Millions of working-class Americans are busting their butts every day to keep their jobs, put food on the table, maintain a roof over their head and maybe save for retirement. When they see anyone -- white, black, brown, purple or green -- who is not working as hard as they are, but still getting benefits from the government, it's a gut-punch to their sense of fairness.
The Obama campaign is well aware of these sentiments and just as guilty of trying to exploit them. Fairness, as it relates to taxes, will surely be one of the big themes in this week's Democratic convention. This follows on the ideas contained in Obama's speech in Ossowatamie, Kan., last year: "Today, thanks to loopholes and shelters, a quarter of all millionaires now pay lower tax rates than millions of middle-class households. ... This is the height of unfairness."
In his book "The Righteous Mind," New York University Stern School of Business professor Jonathan Haidt writes about people's perception of fairness: "When people work together on a task, they generally want to see the hardest workers get the largest gains. ... When a few members of a group contributed for more than others -- or, even more powerfully, when a few contributed nothing -- most adults do not want to see the benefits distributed equally."
This is the instinctive moral reasoning that Romney's welfare-without-work ad taps into. It isn't racist. It's just the conservative "fairness" answer to Obama's "tax-the-rich" fairness argument.
Conn Carroll (email@example.com) is a senior editorial writer for The Washington Examiner. Follow him on Twitter at @conncarroll.