Friday, June 20, 2008

A broken system: Obama, the Republican smear machine, and the public financing of elections

By Michael J.W. Stickings

I must admit, I just can't get worked up over Obama's decision:

Senator Barack Obama announced Thursday that he would not participate in the public financing system for presidential campaigns. He argued that the system had collapsed, and would put him at a disadvantage running against Senator John McCain, his likely Republican opponent.

With his decision, Mr. Obama became the first candidate of a major party to decline public financing — and the spending limits that go with it — since the system was created in 1976, after the Watergate scandals.

Mr. McCain, who has been a champion of the public financing system, affirmed Thursday that his campaign would accept public financing.

And the reason I can't get worked up is this: It's not like the U.S. has anywhere near a perfect public financing system. It would be one thing if election campaigns were all funded publicly, with no private donations allowed, and there were strict and sensible spending limits. But it's essentially just a system of loopholes.

Here's how Obama himself put it: "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."

Of course, the Democrats are awfully good at exploiting the system, too, especially through their own 527s, as they showed in 2004.

This year, though, Obama and the Democrats have a decisive advantage over McCain and the Republicans -- and that advantage is Obama's incredible ability to raise money. Ambinder (via Benen): "The potential money gap in the general election is huge -- Obama could raise as much as $300m, and the McCain campaign/RNC budget team doesn't anticipating spending more than $150m."

Some political finance reformers are understandably unhappy with Obama's decision. And some of his critics on the right -- hypocrites, of course -- are predictably smearing him with the flip-flop label. But why should Obama stay in the system if doing so would only disadvantage him, that is, take away one of the main advantages he has over McCain?

Singer (via Benen again): "McCain was hoping to tie Obama's hands behind his back by forcing him to opt into the public financing program — while McCain would still rely heavily on the RNC to finance his efforts. What's more, with the proliferation of 527 organizations willing to say anything and everything to tar Democrats, not the least of which Obama, had Obama opted into the program he would have been hampered in efforts to rightfully defend himself from smears. But Obama didn't fall for McCain's game — he called the bluff, forcing McCain to show that his real priority in trying to force this election into the public financing program was not reform but rather ambition to be elected President."

Exactly. Obama has run an incredibly effective grassroots campaign, raising huge sums of money from small (and new) donors. Meanwhile, being in the public financing system has been a matter of convenience and necessity for McCain, not a matter of principle. Back during the primary season that just ended, he was in the system (when he was losing and unable to raise money on his own) before trying to get out of it (when he was winning and able to raise money on his own).

Again, if there were actually a system in place that worked and that was fair, with firm rules in place well ahead of time and no loopholes, fine. I'm not necessarily against the public financing of elections. But that's just not the way it is.

And so, I think, Obama made the right decision.

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  • And here is what Josh Marshall says about McCain's hypocritical flip-flop during the primary season:

    McCain opting into public financing, accepted the spending limits and then profited from that opt-in by securing a campaign saving loan. And then he used some clever, but not clever enough lawyering, to opt back out. And the person charged with saying what flies and what doesn't -- the Republican head of the FEC -- said he's not allowed to do that. He can't opt out unilaterally unless the FEC says he can.

    MSM coverage of Obama's alleged flip-flop can hardly be termed "fair and balanced" without mentioning McCain's behavior. Typical of Republicans, they want to have their cake while spewing shit.

    The Obama camp needs to throw this one back in McCain's face.

    By Blogger Swampcracker, at 9:27 AM  

  • My sentiments exactly!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:44 PM  

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