The Politics of Spare Change

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Friday, June 20, 2008

BARACK OBAMA isn't abandoning his pledge to take public financing for the general election campaign because it's in his political interest. Certainly not. He isn't about to become the first candidate since Watergate to run an election fueled entirely with private money because he will be able to raise far more that way than the mere $85 million he'd get if he stuck to his promise -- and with which his Republican opponent, John McCain, will have to make do. No, Mr. Obama, or so he would have you believe, is forgoing the money because he is so committed to public financing. Really, it hurts him more than it hurts Fred Wertheimer.

Pardon the sarcasm. But given Mr. Obama's earlier pledge to "aggressively pursue" an agreement with the Republican nominee to accept public financing, his effort to cloak his broken promise in the smug mantle of selfless dedication to the public good is a little hard to take. "It's not an easy decision, and especially because I support a robust system of public financing of elections," Mr. Obama said in a video message to supporters.

Mr. Obama didn't mention his previous proposal to take public financing if the Republican nominee agreed to do the same -- the one for which he received heaps of praise from campaign finance reform advocates such as Mr. Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, and others, including us. He didn't mention, as he told the Federal Election Commission last year in seeking to preserve the option, that "Congress concluded some thirty years ago that the public funding alternative . . . would serve core purposes in the public interest: limiting the escalation of campaign spending and the associated pressures on candidates to raise, at the expense of time devoted to public dialogue, ever vaster sums of money."

Instead, he cast his abandonment of the system as a bold good-government move. "This is our moment, and our country is depending on us," he said. "So join me, and declare your independence from this broken system and let's build the first general election campaign that's truly funded by the American people." Sure, and if the Founding Fathers were around today, they'd have bundlers, too.

Mr. Obama had an opportunity here to demonstrate that he really is a different kind of politician, willing to put principles and the promises he has made above political calculation. He made a different choice, and anyone can understand why: He's going to raise a ton of money. Mr. McCain played games with taking federal matching funds for the primaries until it turned out he didn't need them, and he had a four-month head start in the general election while Mr. Obama was still battling for the nomination. Outside groups are going to come after him. He has thousands of small donors along with his big bundlers. And so on.

Fine. Politicians do what politicians need to do. But they ought to spare us the self-congratulatory back-patting while they're doing it.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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