Sen. Barack Obama announced yesterday that he is opting out of the public finance system for the general election. His campaign concluded that his internet fundraising base, with more than 1.5 million donors and which raised $272 million through April, could deliver more cash than the $80 million the government would have provided the day after the convention. Obama is the first candidate since Watergate to forego public financing of his campaign, but the system has been breaking down slowly. The Supreme Court in Buckley v. Valeo interpreted the original post-Watergate laws, resulting in the creation of Political Action Committees or PACs. The McCain-Feingold changes in campaign finance reform brought on an explosion of 527s, named for the provision of the code that allows organizations that are not affiliated with a candidate’s campaign to spend unlimited amounts of money. Campaign finance reform is the land of unintended consequences. For example, because a 527 cannot coordinate with a candidate’s campaign to craft a positive message, 527s fund almost exclusively negative advertising. The spending limits during the primaries were so stringent, that no candidate could easily abide them. (Both Obama and Sen. Hillary Clinton opted out of the system for the primaries.) And, the congressional campaign committees are technically 527s, so at a time when it would be beneficial to strengthen the two major political parties, McCain-Feingold weakened them. Obama had pledged to stay in the system for the general election. Then, once his donor base started growing, he said he would sit down with the GOP nominee and work out an agreement that was fair to both sides. Now, perceiving a real advantage, Obama has completely switched positions. It wouldn’t be so bad that Obama changed his mind if his campaign had not dressed up the decision in such high falutin’ phrases of moral rectitude. The Republicans were blamed for "gaming the system" because the Republican National Committee raised significantly more than their Democratic counterparts in the beginning of the year. And, the specter of unlimited 527 spending, such as funded the anti-Kerry Swiftboaters in 2004, was employed with Rovian precision. Last time I checked, however, the left-leaning 527s raised and spent more than right-leaning ones in 2004. The Swiftboaters hit a nerve while Moveon.org did not, but Moveon had the money. Will any of this matter for the election itself? Of course. Obama will have virtually unlimited funds. He can run ads in states with expensive media markets like New Jersey. In fact, he can run ads everywhere. And, the decision to forego public financing matters to very few people: It is the quintessential inside-the-beltway story. Obama’s breaking his earlier pledge will not cost him much politically. Which is a shame. For a man pledged to changing politics for the better, this decision is a step backward. The problem with politicians is that they do the right thing only when it is convenient. Today, on this issue, Obama fits right in with the prevailing ethos of Washington. He can afford to do so financially, but can he afford to do so morally? Michael Sean Winters

Comments

Anonymous | 6/20/2008 - 6:34pm
I don't agree. The main purpose of campaign funding reform (from my point of view) was to put some limits on rich people and groups/companies/unions putting huge amounts of cash into campaigns. Obama has raised lots of money from "regular folks" -- which is how it should be. The Republicans are howling because, in an election when their "leader" George Bush is less popular than a cobra or "compost," they know they won't be able to come close to what Obama can raise from "regular folks" or their regular supporters (big business, etc.)
Anonymous | 6/24/2008 - 7:00am
Two observations: 1] Given Sen. Obama's fund-raising operation in the primaries (a true grass-roots operation) I seriously would have questioned his judgment had he opted for public financing. 2] Why was no mention made of the (possibly illegal) primary public financing chicanery of Senator McCain?
Anonymous | 6/21/2008 - 9:57pm
This issue may have more traction then you indicate - but not because the average American worries about inside the beltway nonsense. If McCain can make Obama’s own inconsistent words an issue – and frame him as just another Washington politician instead of some great change agent , it not only raises questions of Obama’s fit for office —it also moves the focus from away from Bush 43.