In criticizing President Obama’s gutting of the work requirements so central to welfare reform, the Romney campaign evoked political history. Lanhee Chen, Romney’s policy director reminded us yesterday that in 1996: “Barack Obama took to the floor of the Illinois State Senate to announce his opposition [to work-based welfare reform].” True, but that’s only the beginning. Let’s have a look at what else Obama was doing that year.
In 1996, the year President Bill Clinton signed the welfare reform bill, Obama became a member of a leftist third party called the New Party. The Obama campaign denied this in 2008, and continues to deny it today, although contemporaneous documents now definitively prove it. The core purpose of the New Party was to pull the country to the left of the Clinton Democrats. Opposition to the welfare reform act virtually defined the New Party’s position.
The most important plank in the New Party’s platform was a guaranteed minimum income for all adults, regardless of whether they worked. In 1996, when Obama joined the party and gained its endorsement, candidates had to speak up in favor of the party platform to seal the deal. Obama also knew and had personally discussed the goals of the New Party with the party’s national leader, Joel Rogers, who was preoccupied with the guaranteed minimum income provision.
In 2001, shortly after the New Party folded, Joel Rogers co-edited a book called What’s Wrong With A Free Lunch? The book featured a detailed proposal by a left-leaning policy wonk for a fixed monthly income for all citizens that would pointedly “not be conditional on any behavior or characteristic of the recipient.” This “free lunch” was openly touted as a heavily redistributive proposal, and placed in stark opposition to traditional American attitudes about the connection between work and welfare. This was the New Party’s guaranteed annual income plank come to life.
What’s Wrong With A Free Lunch? included a series of reactions to the guaranteed annual income idea, featuring gushing praise from ACORN head Wade Rathke, who had been the most powerful grassroots figure in the New Party, and who effectively controlled the Chicago chapter where Obama was a member.
In an important piece on the Romney/Obama welfare debate, Heritage Foundation policy specialist Robert Rector points out that liberals and “the left” have historically opposed work requirements for welfare. Even Clinton signed the 1996 bill reluctantly, Rector notes, and liberals historically “talk right” but “govern left” on this issue. All true. Obama’s opposition to work requirements is far from unprecedented.
Having said that, it matters that Obama has historically been on the far-left side of liberal on this issue. Obama was willing to go so far as to join a leftist third party at the very moment when Clinton signed onto work requirements for welfare. Opposition to Clinton’s position was at the heart of Obama’s move. That leftist background goes a long way toward explaining why Obama would risk stirring up a national controversy over changes to a welfare reform bill that the public was happy with.
Much of the debate over the claims in Romney’s new ad hinge on what you think Obama’s long-term intentions for welfare reform actually are. Either you believe the president when he and his representatives say that this change to the work requirements is just a tiny tweak that doesn’t mean much, or you believe conservative policy experts like Robert Rector, who say that all that talk is a smokescreen for an attempt to gut the core of the 1996 bill.
To resolve this conflict, voters need to form a judgement about Obama’s long-term intentions. And to make that decision, Obama’s leftist history on this issue is pertinent information. In short, the president’s past matters, as the Romney campaign itself pointed out when it raised his 1996 statements in opposition to welfare reform. Have a look at what else Obama was doing that year, and the point becomes stronger still.
The media’s refusal to report the new information confirming that Obama did in fact join a leftist third party in 1996 clearly matters. If the public knew this history, it could have a very real impact on how this unfolding debate over Obama’s welfare changes plays out.