Gosh, what sort of way-back machine has descended on Boston this week? The Republican political strategy emanating from the Hub has a distinctly 1988 feel to it, what with the resuscitation of that Reagan-Bush golden-oldie...the welfare queen! First, it was Mitt Romney, who, in brazen defiance of all reality, launched an ad accusing President Obama of going soft on welfare reform because he approved waivers to give states more flexibility in how they meet welfare-to-work requirements—waivers that were requested by several Republican governors and had been supported in the past by Romney himself. We can be certain that somewhere, a pro-safety net former HUD secretary was shaking his head.
Barely had the ink dried on the Romney welfare-ad press releases when along came Scott Brown, who, it should be noted, shares with Romney the services of campaign adviser Eric Fehrnstrom. Brown is not objecting to welfare recipients not working enough for their bounty; no, he is instead objecting to their...being invited to register to vote. Yes, it is now apparently considered politically acceptable—in Massachusetts, the birthplace of American democracy! -- for a candidate to object publicly to the registration of low-income voters. Used to be one had to say such a thing in veiled terms, but heck, why bother when the chairman of the Republican National Committee is proudly describing the votes of the other side as “watering down” votes for his own side?
Here’s the background on the Brown gambit: Massachusetts is the latest state to have been taken to court by a consortium of progressive groups over its failure to observe one element of the 1993 “Motor Voter” law, which required that states not only encourage people to register to vote when they visit the Department of Motor Vehicles, but that they also offer registration to people visiting state social service offices, some of whom may well not ever make it to the DMV. To comply with the lawsuit, Massachusetts agreed to an interim settlement under which it will send out voter registration forms to 478,000 people who should've been offered the chance to register when visiting social service offices.
What’s the problem with this, you ask? Well, there’s a conspiracy, you see. One of the groups involved in the lawsuits is Demos. The chair of the Demos board is Amelia Tyagi, who is...the daughter of Elizabeth Warren. A-ha! The smoking gun! (Or smoking pipe, to keep with the Native American metaphors that the Brown campaign likes to use against “Faux-chohantas,” as they call Warren in the wake of revelations over her dubious past claims of Cherokee ancestry.) “I want every legal vote to count, but it’s outrageous to use taxpayer dollars to register welfare recipients as part of a special effort to boost one political party over another,” Brown said two days ago. “This effort to sign up welfare recipients is being aided by Elizabeth Warren’s daughter and it’s clearly designed to benefit her mother’s political campaign.”
Never mind that Demos and the allied groups started getting into this issue in 2004 and filed their first lawsuit in 2006, when Liz Warren was an obscure academic. Never mind that they also filed suit in New Mexico, Indiana, Ohio and Georgia, among other states. Never mind that they started their investigation in Massachusetts in early 2011, back when Elizabeth Warren was busy setting up the new consumer protection agency and still hoping to become its first director, or that it filed notice of its suit in December 2011, long before Warren found herself enmeshed in a surprisingly tough race against Brown. Never mind that the Demos board has zero involvement, the group says, in choosing the timing of suits.
No, none of those facts have gotten in the way of headlines like this one, on an editorial in the New York Post: “Warren’s Kid Gets Dirty to Save Mom’s Senate Bid.” The editorial flies into high anti-welfare-queen dudgeon: “[A]s the state Department of Transitional Assistance letter to recipients put it, ‘DTA does not verify whether or not public assistance applicants or clients are currently registered to vote or eligible to register to vote.’ But, hey, what’s citizenship have to do with it—as long as they vote the right way.” This afternoon, Brown gave new fuel to the charge, demanding that the Warren campaign reimburse the state for the $276,000 cost of mailing the a registration forms. The whole thing has left Demos shaking its head. “The real scandal is that we don’t have better voter registration procedures all around the country—and that anyone would reject the notion that low-income people have same the opportunity to vote as anyone who visited the DMV,” said Brenda Wright, Demos’ vice president for legal strategies. “All we’re talking about is giving people the opportunity to register to vote.”
You’d think that this gambit might be considered beyond the pale in a state as proudly progressive as Massachusetts—and that Warren would be able to turn this overreach against Brown, calling him out for the gall of objecting to the registration of low-income voters, and thereby puncturing his image as an above-it-all, independent-minded working-class boy made good. As I described in a piece in the latest issue of the magazine, Warren has often struggled, in her first run for office, to find the deft touch necessary to counter a genial gladhander like Brown. Challenging him over his anti-democratic new ploy would seem like a good place to start.
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