It is the fight of the week in the race for president. A battle over a policy shift by the Obama administration regarding welfare led to a ferocious war of words between campaigns. A war where both sides took liberties designed to make the other sides position look worse than they actually are.
The battle started with this ad released by the Romney campaign this morning:
Among other things, the ad accuses President Obama of gutting President Bill Clinton's historic welfare reform efforts of the late 90's.
The ad says "Under Obama’s plan, you wouldn’t have to work and wouldn’t have to train for a job. They just send you your welfare check, and ‘welfare to work’ goes back to being plain old welfare."
That is not quite true. PolitiFact quickly reviewed the ad and gave it the dreaded "Pants on Fire" ruling. They said the ad's claims are a "a drastic distortion of the planned changes to Temporary Assistance to Needy Families."
Administration officials said that the policy shift was designed to provide state leaders more flexibility to administer their welfare programs. The goal being to get more people off the public rolls and back into the workforce.
But in an interview Tuesday afternoon, Andrea Saul, Romney's Press Secretary accused the Obama Administration of giving too many people a free pass.
"Its the difference between the dependency of a check and the dignity of work," she said.
Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell agrees with Saul. In a recent op-ed in the Times-Dispatch, McDonnell said "the heart of welfare reform was gutted." McDonnell helped to author Virginia's welfare to work legislation as delegate.
McDonnell also accuses Obama of taking an end-run at democracy by not working to have new legislation passed by the Congress to soften the requirements.
While the Department of Health and Human Services department has certainly shifted course, there is little evidence that it will "gut" the existing welfare to work programs. Furthermore it leaves the discretion to states, which most republicans are in favor of. In fact in order to be eligible for the waiver, states must be able to show a plan that will reduce their welfare rolls by 20%.
But in defense of the president, the Obama campaign returned fire with accusations against Romney that are not that accurate either. They point to Romney joining 28 other republican governors that asked for a similar waiver request, to give the state executives the ability to administer their own programs without strict federal oversight.
"The point of this was to strengthen the work requirement, not weaken it," Obama campaign National Press Secretary Ben LaBolt told me. "Governor Romney requested even more flexibility when he was governor and that was certainly something you didn't see Governor McDonnell highlight in his oped."
The Obama campaign accused Romney of undermining Clinton's success.
But that is not all together true either. According to the Boston Globe, which closely covered Romney's administration, when the republican took office the Bay State already had a waiver that allowed them to have weak standards for welfare to work. Romney quickly proposed legislation to increase the work standards to be eligible for welfare. His proposal died in the democrat controlled Massachusetts legislature.
Saul argued that there was a big difference between when the Obama Administration is rolling back standards and when a governor is asking for flexibility.
"When you are governor your always going to want more flexibility," she said. "But there is a difference between asking for flexibility and taking out the key component legislation to begin with."
The waiver request wasn't the only aspect of Romney's welfare policy that the Obama team chose to attack.
"Governor Romney had launched a false and hypocritical attack," said LaBolt. "This is coming from the same governor, governor Romney, who while in Massachusetts provided free cars to welfare recipients."
The free car program came under fire last year before the primary season really got moving. At the time, Romney's spokeswoman Gail Gitcho told the Boston Herald that the free car program was a huge success for taxpayers. 80% of program participants ended up getting off welfare. It was a $600 thousand investment that reaped $1 million in savings.
So when it comes to welfare, both sides are grabbing on to small shreds of truth and selling nightmare scenarios that don't tell the whole story.
It is a terrific example of the path of this campaign. Don't believe everything you see, especially when it comes in 30 second increments.
Here are some extended clips from my interviews with both campaigns on the welfare to work battle:
Romney Press Secretary Andrea Saul:
Obama Press Secretary Ben LaBolt: