Ethics & Public Policy Center

Obama’s Third-Party History

Published in National Review Online on June 7, 2012



On the evening of January 11, 1996, while Mitt Romney was in the final years of his run as the head of Bain Capital, Barack Obama formally joined the New Party, which was deeply hostile to the mainstream of the Democratic party and even to American capitalism. In 2008, candidate Obama deceived the American public about his potentially damaging tie to this third party. The issue remains as fresh as today’s headlines, as Romney argues that Obama is trying to move the United States toward European-style social democracy, which was precisely the New Party’s goal.

In late October 2008, when I wrote here at National Review Online that Obama had been a member of the New Party, his campaign sharply denied it, calling my claim a “crackpot smear.” Fight the Smears, an official Obama-campaign website, staunchly maintained that “Barack has been a member of only one political party, the Democratic Party.” I rebutted this, but the debate was never taken up by the mainstream press.

Recently obtained evidence from the updated records of Illinois ACORN at the Wisconsin Historical Society now definitively establishes that Obama was a member of the New Party. He also signed a “contract” promising to publicly support and associate himself with the New Party while in office.

Minutes of the meeting on January 11, 1996, of the New Party’s Chicago chapter 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 this, a roster of the Chicago chapter of the New Party from early 1997 lists Obama as a member, with January 11, 1996, indicated as the date he joined.

Knowing that Obama disguised his New Party membership helps make sense of his questionable handling of the 2008 controversy over his ties to ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now). During his third debate with John McCain, Obama said that the “only” involvement he’d had with ACORN was to represent the group in a lawsuit seeking to compel Illinois to implement the National Voter Registration Act, or motor-voter law. The records of Illinois ACORN and its associated union clearly contradict that assertion, as I show in my political biography of the president, Radical-in-Chief: Barack Obama and the Untold Story of American Socialism.

Why did Obama deny his ties to ACORN? The group was notorious in 2008 for thug tactics, fraudulent voter registrations, and its role in popularizing risky subprime lending. Admitting that he had helped to fund ACORN’s voter-registration efforts and train some of their organizers would doubtless have been an embarrassment but not likely a crippling blow to his campaign. So why not simply confess the tie and make light of it? The problem for Obama was ACORN’s political arm, the New Party.

The revelation in 2008 that Obama had joined an ACORN-controlled, leftist third party could have been damaging indeed, and coming clean about his broader work with ACORN might easily have exposed these New Party ties. Because the work of ACORN and the New Party often intersected with Obama’s other alliances, honesty about his ties to either could have laid bare the entire network of his leftist political partnerships.

Although Obama is ultimately responsible for deceiving the American people in 2008 about his political background, he got help from his old associates. Each of the two former political allies who helped him to deny his New Party membership during campaign ’08 was in a position to know better.

The Fight the Smears website quoted Carol Harwell, who managed Obama’s 1996 campaign for the Illinois senate: “Barack did not solicit or seek the New Party endorsement for state senator in 1995.” Drawing on her testimony, Fight the Smears conceded that the New Party did support Obama in 1996 but denied that Obama had ever joined, adding that “he was the only candidate on the ballot in his race and never solicited the endorsement.”

We’ve seen that this is false. Obama formally requested New Party endorsement, signed the candidate contract, and joined the party. Is it conceivable that Obama’s own campaign manager could have been unaware of this? The notion is implausible. And the documents make Harwell’s assertion more remarkable still.

The New Party had a front group called Progressive Chicago, whose job was to identify candidates that the New Party and its sympathizers might support. Nearly four years before Obama was endorsed by the New Party, both he and Harwell joined Progressive Chicago and began signing public letters that regularly reported on the group’s meetings. By prominently taking part in Progressive Chicago activities, Obama was effectively soliciting New Party support for his future political career (as was Harwell, on Obama’s behalf). So Harwell’s testimony is doubly false.

When the New Party controversy broke out, just about the only mainstream journalist to cover it was Politico‘s Ben Smith, whose evident purpose was to dismiss it out of hand. He contacted Obama’s official spokesman Ben LaBolt, who claimed that his candidate “was never a member” of the New Party. And New Party co-founder and leader Joel Rogers told Smith, “We didn’t really have members.” But a line in the New Party’s official newsletter explicitly identified Obama as a party member. Rogers dismissed that as mere reference to “the fact that the party had endorsed him.”

This is nonsense. I exposed the falsity of Rogers’s absurd claim, and Smith’s credulity in accepting it, in 2008 (here and here). And in Radical-in-Chief I took on Rogers’s continuing attempts to justify it. The recently uncovered New Party records reveal how dramatically far from the truth Rogers’s statement has been all along.

In a memo dated January 29, 1996, Rogers, writing as head of the New Party Interim Executive Council, addressed “standing concerns regarding existing chapter development and activity, the need for visibility as well as new members.” So less than three weeks after Obama joined the New Party, Rogers was fretting about the need for new members. How, then, could Rogers assert in 2008 that his party “didn’t really have members”? Internal documents show that the entire leadership of the New Party, both nationally and in Chicago, was practically obsessed with signing up new members, from its founding moments until it dissolved in the late 1990s.

In 2008, after I called Rogers out on his ridiculous claim that his party had no members, he explained to Ben Smith that “we did have regular supporters whom many called ‘members,’ but it just meant contributing regularly, not getting voting rights or other formal power in NP governance.” This is also flatly contradicted by the newly uncovered records.

At just about the time Obama joined the New Party, the Chicago chapter was embroiled in a bitter internal dispute. A party-membership list is attached to a memo in which the leaders of one faction consider a scheme to disqualify potential voting members from a competing faction, on the grounds that those voters had not renewed their memberships. The factional leaders
worried that their opponents would legitimately object to this tactic, since a mailing that called for members to renew hadn’t been properly sent out. At any rate, the memo clearly demonstrates that, contrary to Rogers’s explanation, membership in the New Party entailed the right to vote on matters of party governance. In fact, Obama’s own New Party endorsement, being controversial, was thrown open to a members’ vote on the day he joined the party.

Were Harwell and Rogers deliberately lying in order to protect Obama and deceive the public? Readers can decide for themselves. Yet it is clear that Obama, through his official spokesman, Ben LaBolt, and the Fight the Smears website, was bent on deceiving the American public about a matter whose truth he well knew.

The documents reveal that the New Party’s central aim was to move the United States steadily closer to European social democracy, a goal that Mitt Romney has also attributed to Obama. New Party leaders disdained mainstream Democrats, considering them tools of business, and promised instead to create a partnership between elected officials and local community organizations, with the goal of socializing the American economy to an unprecedented degree.

The party’s official “statement of principles,” which candidates seeking endorsement from the Chicago chapter were asked to support, called for a “peaceful revolution” and included redistributive proposals substantially to the left of the Democratic party.

To get a sense of the ideology at play, consider that the meeting at which Obama joined the party opened with the announcement of a forthcoming event featuring the prominent socialist activist Frances Fox Piven. The Chicago New Party sponsored a luncheon with Michael Moore that same year.

I have more to say on the New Party’s ideology and program, Obama’s ties to the party, and the relevance of all this to the president’s campaign for reelection. See the forthcoming issue of National Review.

In the meantime, let us see whether a press that let candidate Obama off the hook in 2008—and that in 2012 is obsessed with the president’s youthful love letters—will now refuse to report that President Obama once joined a leftist third party, and that he hid that truth from the American people in order to win the presidency.

Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. A longer version of this article appears in the forthcoming June 25 issue of National Review.

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