To hear Mitt Romney tell it — at least in his ads — welfare reform was largely a Bill Clinton initiative, accomplished with the assistance of a bipartisan Congress. A Romney ad released Tuesday attacking President Obama’s decision to gut the work requirement that is central to welfare reform begins with the headline: “Clinton’s Plan: Requiring Work for Welfare.” And a web video released Wednesday morning begins with Clinton speaking at the August 22, 1996 ceremony in which he signed the reform measure: “The new bill restores America’s basic bargain of providing opportunity and demanding in return responsibility.”
There’s someone missing in Romney’s telling of the welfare reform story, and that is the man most responsible for turning the most successful policy initiative in a generation into law: Newt Gingrich. As a lawmaker, prime mover of the Contract With America, and Speaker of the House, Gingrich pushed a reluctant Bill Clinton into signing the reform bill. Clinton did it kicking and screaming; he vetoed the bill twice before making an election-year calculation that he had to sign welfare reform or risk defeat in his 1996 re-election bid.
So Gingrich is a very big part of the welfare reform picture, except when Romney is the one who draws the picture. The former Speaker, is, of course, also Romney’s former bitter rival for the Republican nomination. While Romney has buried the hatchet with other former rivals, his reconciliation with Gingrich has been halting and partial at best.
Romney is stressing Clinton’s part in welfare reform in an effort to isolate Barack Obama from the Democrats who reluctantly supported welfare reform in the 1990s. Obama opposed adding a work requirement to welfare. So did Clinton, initially. And so did the liberal establishment. Just look at this passage from the New York Times news account of the welfare reform bill-signing:
With his signature, at a Rose Garden ceremony, [Clinton] eliminated a pillar of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal social welfare program, delighting the Republican-controlled Congress in this election year and incensing many of his fellow Democrats.
The bottom line is that the Democratic leadership, from Bill Clinton down, hated welfare reform. Gingrich and his fellow Republicans pushed hard for it and created the political atmosphere in which reform became a reality. That’s what happened, and Newt Gingrich, not Bill Clinton, led the charge.