Sunday, June 22, 2008

Obama's Ethics Allies are Not Pleased

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By David Nather

One of the consequences of Barack Obama's announcement this morning that he'll opt out of the public financing system is that he's alienated the allies who worked with him, and praised his work, on last year's lobbying and ethics overhaul.

Obama was one of two Democratic senators who took the lead on the legislation, and it was the most significant accomplishment of his short Senate career. Reid paired him up with Russ Feingold of Wisconsin - the Democrat who co-authored the 2002 campaign finance overhaul with John McCain - to take the lead in pushing the ethics legislation through the Senate.

So what did Feingold think of Obama's decision not to participate in the public-financing system in the general election against McCain? Not much.

"This is not a good decision," Feingold said in a statement today. "While the current public financing system for the presidential primaries is broken, the system for the general election is not. The entire system must be updated."

The reactions were similar from the government watchdog groups that worked closely with Obama and Feingold on the ethics overhaul. Democracy 21 President Fred Wertheimer declared himself "very disappointed" with the decision. Public Citizen president Joan Claybrook said she was "deeply disappointed." You get the idea.

In a video distributed to his supporters, Obama justified his decision by declaring that "the public financing of presidential elections as it exists today is broken, and we face opponents who've become masters at gaming this broken system. John McCain's campaign and the Republican National Committee are fueled by contributions from Washington lobbyists and special interest PACs. And we've already seen that he's not going to stop the smears and attacks from his allies running so-called 527 groups, who will spend millions and millions of dollars in unlimited donations."

But the watchdog groups weren't buying it. Obama "knew the circumstances surrounding the presidential general election when he made his public pledge to use the system," said Wertheimer. Claybrook, for her part, shared Feingold's view that it's the primaries where the public financing system needs work, not the general election. Obama's campaign, she said, should have been a model of his dedication to campaign finance and ethics overhauls.

Another complication is the fact that Obama is a co-sponsor of a Feingold bill that would overhaul the public financing system, notably by allowing more matching funds in primaries and letting primary candidates spend more if their opponents opt out of public financing. So it would create some awkward moments for a President Obama if Feingold continues to push that bill next year, as he's likely to do.

"Senator Obama is committed to reforming the current system, and I look forward to working on this and a wide range of other reform issues with him when he becomes President," said Feingold. "But this decision was a mistake."

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