Political observers have noted for a while that Mitt Romney’s claim that President Obama gutted the work requirement in the 1996 welfare reform law is false. But few in the mainstream media have have gone so far as to accuse Republicans of playing the ‘race card.’
But Chris Matthews, the host of MSNBC’s “Hardball,” didn’t hold back in a tirade launched against RNC Chairman Reince Priebus Monday morning, accusing the Romney campaign of using race to defeat Obama. Matthews lit into Priebus, citing both the welfare attacks and Romney’s recent birth certificate joke as evidence that the GOP is “playing that little ethnic card there.”
“I have to call you on this, Mr. Chairman,” Matthews said in an appearance with Priebus on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” as he responded to Republicans’ criticism that Obama is running a very negative campaign. “But they’ve both negative. That cheap shot about ‘I don’t have a problem with my birth certificate’ was awful. It is an embarrassment to your party to play that card.”
Matthews continued, turning the attacks up a notch:
“You can play your games and giggle about it but the fact is your side playing that card. When you start talking about work requirements, you know what game you’re playing and everybody knows what game you’re playing. It’s a race card and yeah, if your name’s Romney, yeah you were well born, you went to prep school, yeah, brag about it. This guy has an African name and he’s got to live with it. Look who’s gone further in their life. Who was born on third base? Making fun of the guy’s birth certificate issue when it was never a real issue except for the right wing.”
Priebus pushed back against Matthews remarks. “Congratulations,” he said. “You’re loaded up, you got it out.” Priebus argued that Romney’s birth certificate comment was just “a moment of levity” and “everybody gets it.”
“It just seems funny the first joke he’s ever told in his life is about Obama’s birth certificate,” Matthews responded.
Though few have said explicitly that Romney’s welfare attacks are about race, it was a charge launched at Newt Gingrich, who made “paychecks versus food stamps” a central issue in his primary bid for the nomination.
“Under Obama’s plan, you wouldn’t have to work and wouldn’t have to train for a job,” one of many Romney ads on welfare says. “They just send you your welfare check.”
Last week, President Obama cited the welfare attacks as evidence that Romney was playing dirty. “The contrast, I think it is pretty stark,” Obama said at a press conference. “They can run the campaign they want, but the truth of the matter is that you can’t make stuff up. That’s one thing that you learn as president of the United States: You will be called into account.”
Though Matthews comments stand out, he isn’t the first to note the connotations Romney is hoping to play up with the welfare attacks.
“The presumptive Republican presidential nominee wants voters to conjure images in their minds of freeloading moms sitting on couches watching big screen televisions,” the editorial board of the Des Moines Register wrote earlier this month. “And he wants voters to think the president is helping them do just that … but the idea of anyone ‘sponging off the system’ is apparently something Romney believes voters will rally behind him to oppose. He may be right.”
Pema Levy is a News Writer at TPM covering the 2012 election. Before coming to TPM, Pema was an assistant editor at The American Prospect where she wrote about politics and the economy.