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 health care 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," Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky charged at a press conference here.
New Medicaid recipients "have no personal responsibility for their health," said state Sen. 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 Rep. 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. Rep. 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 health care 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 and Ernst both face GOP primaries that will be largely decided by a mostly white conservative base that hates the welfare state...