In March, Barack Obama raised more than $40 million from his supporters. John McCain raised $15 million. Guess which one is more enthusiastic about accepting public financing in the general election?
That would be--surprise!--McCain, who stands to gain $84 million in the bargain. But it wasn't always this way. Last September, Obama filled out questionnaire from the Midwest Democracy Network that asked, "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's answer? A check next to the box marked "yes." Underneath, the Illinois senator elaborated:
In February 2007, I proposed a novel way to preserve the strength of the public financing system in the 2008 election. 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. My proposal followed announcements by some presidential candidates that they would forgo public financing so they could raise unlimited funds in the general election. The Federal Election Commission ruled the proposal legal, and Senator John McCain (R-AZ) has already pledged to accept this fundraising pledge. If I am the Democratic nominee, I will aggressively pursue an agreement with the Republican nominee to preserve a publicly financed general election.
Of course, that was before the senator's well-oiled money machine raked in more than $230 million. With the cash flow showing no signs of slowing, the Obama campaign has spent the past few months attempting to backtrack, equivocate and wriggle free from what seemed, at the time, like a pledge. After telling the press in Feb. 2007 that Obama, if nominated, would "aggressively pursue an agreement with the Republican nominee to preserve a publicly financed general election"--language that Obama himself echoed nine months later in the MDN survey--Obama spokesman Bill Burton said this February that "public financing" is "an option that we wanted on the table," but added "there is no pledge" to take the money and the spending limitations that come with it. When asked by the Washington Post to clarify, Burton said (in the Post's words) "that Obama would address the issue of public financing when he becomes the Democratic nominee and that it is premature to decide the matter now."
But according to reports from a fancy fundraiser last night at Washington, D.C.'s National Museum of Women in the Arts, Obama seems to have decided already. In front of 200 people who'd forked over $2,300 for the privilege of attending, the Democratic frontrunner suggested, in what amounted to a justification of opting out of public financing, that his low-dollar network of online donors effectively represents a "parallel public financing system." "We have created a parallel public financing system where the American people decide if they want to support a campaign they can get on the Internet and finance it," he said. "They will have as much access and influence over the course and direction of our campaign that has traditionally been reserved for the wealthy and the powerful." In other words, who needs public financing when we have online fundraising.
No doubt that the Internet has massively democratized the process of funding a favored politician, and that's a wonderful thing. But there's a simple reason it's not a replacement for public financing: the latter is equal. Both candidates get the same multi-million dollar, taxpayer-financed grant--meaning that money is eliminated from the list of potentially decisive factors. And that's the point. If Obama wants to split hairs and say he never pledged to accept public financing, fine; he never uttered the words, "I pledge to accept public financing," and I doubt many voters would care if he forgoes the system in the fall. But the fact is, he did check "yes" when asked if he would "participate in the presidential public financing system," and he did say that he would "aggressively pursue an agreement... to preserve a publicly financed general election." With McCain already "pledged," as Obama put it, that logically amounts to a promise (unless Obama plans to aggressively pursue a public financing agreement he doesn't intend to honor). And he was well-aware of the power of the Internet even then.
As the Post put it in February, Obama's "enthusiasm for public financing was a way of distinguishing himself from his rival Hillary Clinton, who was raising much more private money at the time." Last March, a high-riding McCain publicly committed himself, as a matter of principle, to accept public funds in the general "if the Democratic nominee agrees to do the same." At the time, Obama effectively did just that. So however revolutionary his online receipts have been--and however helpful they would prove against a comparatively impoverished rival--a failure to "aggressively pursue" the agreement Obama himself outlined last February wouldn't signal the launch of a "parallel public financing system." Instead, it would represent a victory for "politics as usual."
What an intriguing way to start a general-election campaign centered on change.
UPDATE, 3:57 p.m.: As several commenters have noted, there are a "plethora of channels not presently covered by this class of election
finance regulations," including, of course 527s--i.e. the "virtually unregulated" groups that swiftboated John Kerry in 2004. "It would take a dumb candidate," writes reader karlea, "to agree to limit himself to public
financing when the GOP has set aside up to $300 million for 527 smear
campaigns." I agree. But I'm not arguing that public financing is free of challenges, or even that it's the "right thing" to do. I'm merely pointing out that OBAMA HIMSELF--not a dumb guy--proposed his own public-financing plan in the recent past and promised to "aggressively pursue" an agreement with his Republican rival that would encompass, I'm assuming, just the "kind of separately-negotiated, binding and fair contract" that reader Jon of Northern Califia describes. Without such a contract, Obama should by all means forgo public financing. But for now, reiterating his Feb./Nov. 2007 pledge to work toward a suitable agreement would be more in keeping with Obama's "new politics" image than letting his spokesman equivocate--not to mention implying to a roomful of donors that online fundraising should replace public financing. We're still in primary season, so there's no need for Obama to make a final decision now. But come fall, if he doesn't at least "aggressively pursue" an equitable contract with McCain--who seems willing--then I'd consider that a broken promise. We'll see what happens...