Friday, July 4, 2008

Obama Reneges on Public Financing

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By Michael Dobbs

"If I am the Democratic nominee, I will aggressively pursue an agreement with the Republican nominee to preserve a publicly financed general election." --Barack Obama, answer to Midwest Democracy Network questionnaire, September 2007.
In February 2007, Barack Obama challenged Republican presidential candidates to agree to public financing of the general election. John McCain responded positively, prompting Obama's campaign spokesman, Bill Burton, to call on other Republican candidates to follow suit. The headline in the New York Times: "McCain and Obama in Deal on Public Financing."

Fast forward 16 months. Both Obama and McCain have locked up their party's nominations for the presidency. Obama announces that the system of public financing "is broken," and he will rely on his well-oiled private fundraising machine. The McCain camp accuses the Land-of-Lincolner of "breaking his word." True or false?

The Facts

There is some dispute over whether Obama ever formally pledged to participate in the public financing system if his Republican opponent agreed to do the same. As I have reported in a previous post, the closest he came was in response to a September 2007 questionnaire from the Midwest Democracy Network, which included the question, "If you are nominated for President in 2008 and your major opponents agree to forgo private funding in the general election campaign, will you participate in the presidential public financing system?"

Obama highlighted the answer "Yes," and elaborated as follows:

I have been a long-time advocate for public financing of campaigns combined with free television and radio time as a way to reduce the influence of moneyed special interests.... My plan requires both major party candidates to agree on a fundraising truce, return excess money from donors, and stay within the public financing system for the general election....If I am the Democratic nominee, I will aggressively pursue an agreement with the Republican nominee to preserve a publicly financed general election.
While the "Yes" seemed unequivocal, the Obama camp could (and did) argue that the fine print of the deal remained to be worked out with the eventual Republican nominee. The Illinois senator promised to "aggressively pursue" such an agreement. Furthermore, he told the late Tim Russert of NBC News in February 2008 (click on Youtube video above) that he planned "to sit down with John McCain and make sure that we have a system that works for everybody."

It seems pretty clear that there never were serious negotiations between the Obama and McCain campaigns on preserving the public financing system for the general election. The Obama camp has pointed to a 40-minute meeting on June 6 at which Obama campaign lawyer Bob Bauer raised some concerns with his McCain counterpart, Trevor Potter. In a conference call Thursday evening, Bauer said that the McCain camp failed to address these concerns (such as the role of 527s and the McCain "headstart" on general election fundraising) and that the Obama campaign had done "everything that could be considered reasonable under the circumstances."

A 40-minute meeting between two lawyers, some of which time was spent on other matters, can hardly be considered an "aggressive" attempt on Obama's part to reach a deal on campaign financing. In addition, Obama appears to have made no attempt to "sit down" with his Republican rival to produce a workable system.

From the point of view of campaign strategy, Obama has good reasons to avoid locking himself into the public financing system. He has proved that he can raise huge sums of money on his own, much of it from small donors. He does not want to disarm in the face of likely Swiftboat-type attacks on his character, mounted by conservative groups not directly affiliated with the McCain campaign. But none of this alters the fact that he has gone back on his word.

The Pinocchio Test
Barack Obama probably wishes that he had been more careful in the wording of some of his earlier statements about the public financing system. His carefully parsed retreat on public financing is similar to his hedging on an earlier promise to meet the leaders of Iran, Cuba, and North Korea "without preconditions" during his first year as president. In this case, however, the turnaround is even more blatant.

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