Magazine June 25, 2012, Issue

Obama on the Fringe

Campaigning in Illinois in 1995 (©Marc PoKempner, 1995)
The president belonged to a social-democratic third party

In 1996, during his first run for public office, Barack Obama formally joined a leftist third party called the New Party. Its Chicago chapter served as the de facto political arm of the now-defunct group ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now). Ideologically, the New Party sharply differentiated itself from what it took to be the business-dominated Democratic party of Bill Clinton, identifying instead with the social-democratic movements of Europe.

The claim that Obama had been a member of the New Party gained attention from conservatives during the final two weeks of the 2008 campaign, but — even though it rested on considerable evidence — it was never widely reported or discussed in the mainstream press. When I asserted on National Review Online in late October 2008 that Obama had indeed been a member of the New Party, the Obama campaign called my charge a “crackpot smear.” Through its Fight the Smears website, it insisted that its candidate had never been a member, and had “never solicited” the New Party’s endorsement.

Documentary evidence — obtained from ACORN files recently donated to the Wisconsin Historical Society — now contradicts this claim, and establishes beyond any reasonable doubt that Barack Obama did solicit the endorsement, and become a member, of the New Party. Like other candidates who received its endorsement, Obama signed a “contract” in which he promised not only to join the group but also to publicly support and associate himself with it while in office.

The minutes of the public meeting of Chicago’s New Party on January 11, 1996, read as follows: “Barack Obama, candidate for State Senate in the 13th Legislative District, gave a statement to the membership and answered questions. He signed the New Party ‘Candidate Contract’ and requested an endorsement from the New Party. He also joined the New Party.” Consistent with these minutes, a roster of the Chicago chapter of the New Party from early 1997 lists Obama as a member, giving January 11, 1996, as the date he joined. All evidence now points to an attempt by Obama in 2008 to deceive the American public about this important political affiliation in his past.

Obama’s New Party problem must be seen as part and parcel of his attempts to distance himself from ACORN. During his third debate with John McCain, Obama claimed that the “only” involvement he’d had with ACORN was to represent the group in a lawsuit compelling Illinois to implement the motor-voter law. The ACORN archives clearly contradict him, and provide evidence that he had dealings with ACORN well beyond representing it in a single lawsuit.

Why did Obama falsely deny his ties to ACORN? His support for its voter-registration efforts in Chicago and his participation in its training seminars doubtless would have been embarrassing, given its thuggish tactics, its fraudulent voter registrations, and its role in abetting the subprime-loan fiasco at the root of the 2008 financial crisis. But they would not likely have been seriously damaging for him to confess, especially in 2008, when the press was treating him with kid gloves. Admitting to having joined a leftist third party controlled by ACORN, on the other hand, could have been damaging indeed.

The records of ACORN’s national office, as well as those of several local affiliates, including Illinois ACORN and the ACORN-controlled Chicago Local 880 of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), can be found in the archives of the Wisconsin Historical Society. Until recently, these records did not include material more recent than about 1994. My political biography of President Obama, Radical-in-Chief: Barack Obama and the Untold Story of American Socialism, made use of these records to sketch a detailed picture of ACORN’s operations in Chicago and beyond, and of Obama’s ties to the group. Then, apparently sometime around 2010, the records of Illinois ACORN were updated, with especially strong coverage of the mid to late 1990s, and some records extending well into the 2000s. In what follows, I will concentrate on information in the updated Illinois ACORN records about Obama’s ties to the New Party, drawing on older archival material when necessary to fill out the picture.

The Chicago New Party was founded in 1992. Not much later, in February 1993, a New Party memo identified Obama as someone worth recruiting, and made special note of his desire to run for office. The early New Party was run jointly by Madeline Talbott, the leader of Illinois ACORN, and Keith Kelleher, the head of SEIU Local 880. In July 1993, Kelleher met with Obama to interest him in working with the New Party, and with a New Party–controlled front group called Progressive Chicago. Since many Chicago leftists were reluctant to alienate the Democrats by joining a third party, working with Progressive Chicago gave them a way to help the New Party indirectly. Progressive Chicago also served as a base for eventual recruitment to the New Party itself.

#page#Obama told Kelleher that he was “more than happy to be involved” in New Party and Progressive Chicago affairs, while also saying that he would be cautious about anything that might offend regular Democrats. Since the New Party intended to make frequent use of the tactic of “fusion” (endorsement of select progressive candidates running on the Democratic-party line), it was perfectly content to allow its members to be Democrats as well. Yet many Democrats looked on the New Party with suspicion, and it took real courage — and commitment to hard leftism — to have dealings with the group.

True to his word, Obama became a regular signatory on letters Progressive Chicago sent out reporting on its meetings. The central task of Progressive Chicago was to identify local races that could be won by candidates standing to the left of the mainstream Democratic party, and to suggest such candidates.

The Obama campaign’s claim in 2008 that Obama “never solicited” the New Party’s endorsement is doubly false. Not only did he publicly request New Party endorsement on the day he joined, he also worked for nearly four straight years with the leaders of the New Party (who were also the leaders of ACORN and Progressive Chicago) in an unmistakable effort to garner support for an eventual political run. We know that members of ACORN served as Obama’s on-the-ground volunteers in all his early runs for office. Cultivating the New Party and Progressive Chicago was a way of ensuring that support.

In 1996, Obama ran as state senator Alice Palmer’s handpicked successor. She had abandoned her seat in hopes of winning a special election to Congress; while she had promised to support Obama even if she lost her bid, once defeated for the Democratic congressional nomination she turned around and challenged Obama for her old state-senate seat. Obama eventually had Palmer knocked off the ballot for having too few valid signatures to reenter the race, but on January 11, 1996 — the day Obama joined the New Party, requested its endorsement, and signed its Candidate Contract — Palmer’s ballot disqualification had not yet been officially confirmed. The New Party had strongly backed Palmer (a true hard leftist) in her congressional campaign. At the January 11 meeting, New Party leader Madeline Talbott spoke to the assembled members about her disappointment that the party had not been able to push Palmer over the top. Because of the party’s ties to Palmer, the question of whether to endorse Obama was not predetermined by a decision of the leadership, but was thrown open to the membership for a vote, without recommendation.

Obama won, and beat back an attempt by Palmer’s supporters to make the New Party’s endorsement of him contingent on Palmer’s official disqualification from the state-senate race. (There was even a vote on whether to send a letter to Palmer explaining the decision; Obama won on that, too, and no letter was sent.) Obama’s victory over the far more established Palmer can be attributed  to his long and close working relationship with ACORN, whose supporters made up by far the largest contingent within the New Party. Talbott wrote in her 1996 year-end report: “We endorsed Barack before the decision was final on whether he would have opposition in his campaign for State Senate. As it happened, he had none, but he remembers and appreciates our role.” The foundation of a strong relationship had been laid. Another New Party document, seemingly from around 1997, describes State Senator Obama as a “good ally.”

At just about this time, however, the fate of the New Party was sealed. The 1997 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Timmons v. Twin Cities Area New Party, which upheld the permissibility of states’ banning cross-party “fusion” endorsements, weakened the New Party’s prospects of influencing elections, and thus resulted in its rapid decline. An undated “Transition Plan” in a folder containing items from 1999 classifies Obama as a politician friendly to the party and recommends sounding him out for membership on the steering committee of a revamped leadership. Yet it was not to be. The Chicago chapter of the New Party dwindled.

What was the New Party’s ideology? National co-founders Daniel Cantor and Joel Rogers saw the group as a “social democratic” party, roughly modeled on the Swedish labor movement. A party standing on the left side of even Sweden’s political spectrum would clearly be radical by American standards. While Cantor and Rogers initially hoped to make the New Party’s social-democratic stance explicit, other party leaders saw such openness as too risky. An early New Party document, however, makes the party’s social-democratic stance very clear. This manifesto, “The New Party: ‘Building the New Majority,’” is dated April 1992, the very beginning of the party’s existence, just before formal membership sign-up began. It calls New Party members “not just liberal” democrats but “social democrats.” It dismisses the current American political system as “a sewer of privilege and exclusion,” and condemns the Democratic party as “dominated by business, or business-backed candidates, or upper middle class liberal elites searching for a candidate acceptable to business.”

#page#The manifesto rejects the theory that the Democratic party was weakened when a Sixties-inflected McGovernite wing took control of it. Instead, it argues, the failure of the Democratic party to root itself in community organizing is the true source of its weakness. It repeatedly compares America’s Democratic party unfavorably with Europe’s social-democratic parties. Yes, there are “good Democrats” who deserve endorsement, the manifesto concedes — but they are really social democrats, and merit New Party support for precisely that reason. The document ends by describing the New Party platform as an attempt to enact authentic social democracy to the extent possible given “the constraints on such an order imposed by capitalism.” The unmistakable implication is that the founders of the New Party would prefer to throw off the shackles of capitalism entirely.

Acorn’s records show that prior to joining the New Party, Obama was invited to personally confer with party founder Joel Rogers, who would have either authored or approved that early manifesto. Candidates for New Party endorsement in Chicago were also regularly asked whether they agreed with the party’s “Statement of Principles,” which had been approved by the national Interim Executive Council headed by Rogers. The Statement of Principles contains concrete proposals that bring the New Party’s “social democratic” stance to life. There are, for example, proposals to hand substantial control of the banking and financial systems over to community groups (such as ACORN). The Statement of Principles also demands a guaranteed minimum income for all adults, and a universal “social wage,” defined as cradle-to-grave state provision of health care, child care, education, and the like.

If there is a difference between the New Party’s Statement of Principles and the program of the Democratic Socialists of America, many of whose members also joined the New Party, I cannot find it. But while the question of whether the New Party was socialist can be argued, the party’s support for a version of social democracy far to the left of the American Democratic party cannot. And Obama would almost certainly have had to express some level of support for the Statement of Principles before receiving the New Party’s endorsement and joining up.

So in 1996, while Mitt Romney was running Bain Capital, Barack Obama threw in his lot with a leftist third party hostile to both American capitalism and the mainstream Democratic party. Surely if Bain sheds light on Romney’s views, Obama’s New Party membership ought to be a topic of discussion as well, as should Obama’s efforts to disguise this episode of his life. Does Obama’s “Julia” ad betray a cradle-to-grave welfare-state mentality? That would certainly be consistent with his New Party membership. Romney’s allegation that the president’s true goal is to move America by degrees toward being a European-style welfare state also grows more convincing in light of Obama’s New Party days. These matters are newsworthy — far more so than the youthful love letters of Obama and the childhood pranks of Romney, each of which has drawn buckets of real and virtual media ink. If only the press agreed.

– Mr. Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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