A Lapsed Principle

Monday, April 14, 2008

BARACK OBAMA held out the hope of salvaging part of the public financing system for presidential elections. Now he seems poised to drive a nail into it by rejecting the $85 million available to nominees who agree to take full federal funding for the general election. That may be understandable as a matter of campaign tactics; Mr. Obama sits atop a whirring money machine that appears capable of vacuuming up amounts far in excess of the federal check. But going back on his pledge to take public financing if the GOP nominee were to agree to do the same would be an unfortunate step -- and one that reflects badly on Mr. Obama.

When it was in Mr. Obama's interest to present himself as the ethical savior of an imperiled campaign finance system, he was happy to do so, especially since it didn't seem especially likely at the time that he'd be the nominee. But the real test of a candidate is whether he will stick by an announced principle even when that's against his own interest. Now Mr. Obama could become the first nominee since Watergate to run a campaign fueled entirely by private money.

Mr. Obama was correct in calling the public financing system for presidential elections "creaky." If anything, that's an understatement. Even if Mr. Obama were to take public financing, the system would still be in dire need of an overhaul before 2012. The part of the system under which candidates in the primaries agree to abide by spending limits in return for matching funds on the first $250 they raise from each contributor is unquestionably obsolete; the amount of money available is too meager and the spending ceiling too low. Meanwhile, the advent of Internet fundraising has called into question part of the rationale underlying public financing: to spare candidates from the time-consuming business of fundraising and to reduce the influence of big fundraisers and special interests. When torrents of money arrive in small amounts and with little personal effort on the part of the candidate, it is fair to suggest, as Mr. Obama has done, that he has managed to create a parallel financing system that avoids many of the ills that public financing was supposed to address. But a good chunk of Mr. Obama's overflowing treasury comes from big bundlers who have hauled in large sums. As The Post's Matthew Mosk and Alec MacGillis reported, the Obama campaign has 79 such bundlers who brought in at least $200,000 each, including law firm partners, Wall Street financiers and corporate executives.

We praised Mr. Obama last year when he asked the Federal Election Commission to let him raise private money for the general election but later give the money back and decide to participate in the public financing system if he were able to persuade the Republican nominee to do the same. In that circumstance, Mr. Obama's spokesman vowed, he would "aggressively pursue an agreement with the Republican nominee to preserve a publicly financed general election." Well, the Republican nominee turns out to be John McCain, who agreed way back when to Mr. Obama's challenge. Where's Mr. Obama's aggressive pursuit now?

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