Conservatives Go to War with the Obama They Have, Not the Socialist They Want

The latest nugget in conservatives' "vetting" of President Obama is the revelation by the National Review's Stanley Kurtz that in 1996, a pro-union third party called the New Party named Barack Obama as a member in meeting minutes.

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The latest nugget in conservatives' "vetting" of President Obama is the revelation by the National Review's Stanley Kurtz that in 1996, a pro-union third party called the New Party named Barack Obama as a member in meeting minutes. The story has only been covered on conservative blogs -- unless you count a comment on an ABC News story demanding a post about it. Rush Limbaugh is outraged. "And the press is a willing accomplice in keeping it a secret," Limbaugh said on his radio show Thursday. "And it's just a relevant question. See, I don't think there's any doubt that he's a socialist. You look at the what he's done and how he's done it and what his objectives are; the conclusion draws itself."

That comment gets at why the conservative obsession with "vetting" is so odd. The point of vetting a candidate is to try to predict what he might do in office. Well, Obama's been in office four years. He's passed plenty of policies that infuriate the right. If Obamacare is socialist, then it's socialist regardless of whether Obama once sought the endorsement of a lefty third party. But if he hasn't been a socialist in office -- he hasn't -- then digging up affiliations from early in his political career doesn't retroactively make his first term a socialist plot. But never mind. Let's get to the very important question of was Obama or was he not a member of the New Party. 

What was the New Party? In some states, smaller parties are allowed to nominate the candidate of a larger party, and that candidate's name appears on multiple lines on a ballot line. The New Party was another one of these "fusion" parties and went about endorsing candidates, mainly Democrats, who were running for office. One of them was Obama in his race for State Senate in 1996. As for the party's politics, co-founder Daniel Cantor explained to reporter Micah Sifry in 2002, "The shorthand strategy for accomplishing all this is to get the Bruce Springsteen, Lauryn Hill, and Pete Seeger vote united in one party." The New Party shared a lot of connection with labor unions, and the idea was to use its party-line as a pressure on liberal candidates to support union-supported ideas like living wage laws. In 1998, Cantor left the New Party and went on to start another fusion party in New York state called the Working Families Party which still exists today and endorses most of the state's Democrats including Sens. Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand.

Undermining the notion that Obama's unvettedness is that all of this was much discussed when Obama first ran for president. That great quote about the New Party threatening to turn the United States into a socialist dystopia controlled by the members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? Kurtz dug it up for his National Review story about the New Party… in 2008. Conservatives trying to breathe new life into this story are using a familiar tactic to turn an old issue into a new scandal. As Breitbart's Joel Pollack points out, in 2008, the Obama campaign said that Obama "has been a member of only one political party, the Democratic Party." It's been well established that Obama received the party's endorsement in 1996. But now Kurtz says he's uncovered New Party meeting minutes from back then that say:

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.

If it's true, what does it mean? A 1999 version of the New Party of Illinois' "Candidate Contract" -- which is three years after Obama signed his, so it may not be the same one -- requires candidates requesting an endorsement to "Be publicly identified with the New Party" and "Join the New Party as a dues-paying member." So if Kurtz is correct, the possibilities are that Obama's campaign was not telling the truth or Obama broke his word.
Both are kind of crummy, but let's see what Rush Limbaugh has to say about the issue:

What do you think the whole "green energy" thing is about, Mr. Crary? You realize these people can't make the giant power grab all at once. What do you think buying General Motors was all about? You buy General Motors and then you force people to go out and buy electric cars. You fund the solar industry business and the wind business, and then you fund them right into bankruptcy.

Controlling the means of production.

Wait, huh? How do you get from living wages and labor unions to a Marxist revolution. Paul Mirengoff of the conseravtive blog Power Line, please explain:

I consider Kurtz’s evidence clearly relevant. One of Mitt Romney’s central campaign themes is that Obama wants to move the United States steadily closer to the European “social democracy” model. Obama, though, does not admit this. Evidence that, just 16 years ago, Obama joined a political party with precisely that goal tends to confirm Romney’s view.

You see, this is where the vetting obsession gets so weird: if you object to Obama's dealings with G.M. and the passage of Obamacare, why not just say that instead of conjuring fantasies of shadowy past dealings with the international socialist conspiracy? Solyndra, General Motors, Obamacare -- these are all things that happened while Obama has been office and are amply documented. You don't need evidence that Obama has a secret plot with socialists to attack any of them. And what's really bizarre is that the conservatives don't seem to ultimately care about those policy differences. The bailout of G.M., Solyndra, and Obamacare are rather means to the end of proving that Obama is actually a secret socialist -- as if that's the more important issue than what he's done in office.
And that is where all this vetting leads. See, Obama is not a socialist, at least not in the Politburo sense. The conservatives of 2008 spent all their time trying to stoke fears about what a Kenyan Muslim would do in office. The conservatives if 2012 are trying to make the last three years fit that narrative. But don't take our word for it. Limbaugh came out and said this is why he cares about the New Party story. Referring to an Associated Press story about how conservatives say "socialist" now because "liberal" has lost his bite, Limbaugh says he wants to make it more OK to call Obama socialist:

If liberal has lost its punch, its shock value, then why do liberals want us to now call them progressives, hmm?  Doesn't matter.  "Liberal" works every time it's tried.  "Socialist."  You know why socialist hasn't worked in the past?  It's like communist hasn't worked in the past. ... The American people simply don't want to believe that they have elected a socialist. 

When you start calling members of the Democrat Party communist, it didn't work.  People didn't want to believe it...  Khrushchev.  Yuri Andropov, Brezhnev, big eyebrows and stuff, mean guy, Mao Tse-tung.  The idea that an American could even be one of those people was just, no. Calling somebody communist didn't work. Socialist, much the same cache.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.