By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 20, 2008 10:28 AM
Liberals have been championing campaign finance reform since Richard Nixon's bagmen were walking around with suitcases of cash.
It was Jimmy Carter, after his post-Watergate, I'll-never-lie-to-you campaign, who pushed through the first law attempting to curtail the role of big money in politics.
So Barack Obama's decision yesterday to become the first presidential candidate of the modern era to opt out of public financing flies in the face of that tradition. It also happens to contradict his own past assurances. And it poses a real test for the media.
First, Obama's move may be the most important of the campaign--even bigger than the veep choice--because it will give him an enormous financial advantage over John McCain, which, of course, is why he's doing it. That was the choice he faced: keep his word, or use his fundraising machine to blow McCain away on the financial front.
Second, the record makes clear that Obama is doing a 180 on his previous position. As Lynn Sweet notes in her Chicago Sun-Times blog, when the late Tim Russert told Obama in a Feb. 27 debate that "you may break your word" on public financing, Obama said that "at the point where I'm the nominee, at the point where it's appropriate, I will sit down with John McCain and make sure that we have a system that works for everybody."
The question: Are the media going to call Obama on the reversal? Will there be hand-wringing pieces about the corrupting role of money in politics? Or will the story just be covered as the two sides trading charges?
You will not be shocked to hear that while most conservative bloggers are ripping Obama for hypocrisy, most liberal bloggers are defending the move. Had President Bush done this in 2004, there would have been at least five postings up on the Huffington Post accusing him of trying to buy the election.
NYT's lead graf: "He argued that the system had collapsed, and would put him at a disadvantage running against Senator John McCain, his likely Republican opponent." Fourth graf: It "represented a turnaround."
LAT's lead: "Freed from a serious fundraising constraint, Barack Obama is positioned to mount a general-election campaign on a scale the nation has never seen, fueled by hundreds of millions of dollars in private donations." Seventh graf: McCain "accused Obama of breaking a promise."
USA Today's lead: "Democrat Barack Obama's decision to walk away from more than $84 million in taxpayer money for the general election signals trouble for a system created to limit the influence of special interests, experts say." Second graf: "set aside an early promise."
Set aside? I have some promises I'd like to set aside.
Politico's lead: "In a widely expected move that will give Democrat Barack Obama a huge cash advantage over Republican John McCain, Obama announced Thursday morning that he will be the first modern presidential candidate to decline public financing in a general election." Second graf: "represents a break."
Chicago Tribune: "Get ready for the $500 million presidential campaign." Second graf: "reversed field."
Boston Globe's lead: "Barack Obama rejected public funding for the fall presidential campaign yesterday, a dramatic blow to 1970s good-government reform that has been overwhelmed by an explosion of private money." Second graf: McCain "accused Obama of reneging on a pledge."
It's an accusation? But isn't it true?
Now for the papers that got it into the lead. Washington Post: "Sen. Barack Obama reversed his pledge to seek public financing in the general election yesterday, a move that drew criticism from adversaries and allies alike but could provide him with a significant spending advantage over Republican rival John McCain."
Washington Times: "Presumptive Democratic nominee Sen. Barack Obama - the 'people-powered' presidential candidate who previously promised to publicly finance his campaign - on Thursday abandoned that pledge . . . "
The New York Post goes with "BARACKFLIP": "Barack Obama said yesterday he will turn down public funding for the November election - breaking a campaign pledge and giving him a chance to use a boatload of campaign cash to swamp John McCain with TV ads."
All in all, I'd say much of the press went easy on him.
Time's Ana Marie Cox makes clear what happened:
"Obviously, the McCain camp is angry because they've just lost one of things that they hoped might level the playing field. Obama's spending advantage will be enormous. So of course they want to push this as sleazy move on Obama's part. Is it?
"Looking back over what Obama's spokesperson said last year*, this decision does seem to be more than a flip-flop or change of heart -- he didn't just have an opinion about public financing (in fact, he declares that he's still for it), he made a promise to another person to engage in it. And then, for reasons that you may consider legitimate or not, he reneged. People who care more about Obama beating McCain than this particular issue may not care. It's as if Kobe Bryant agreed to play Kevin Garnett as long as they both had one [hand] tied behind their back and then, when Garnett said 'yes,' changed his mind."
Atlantic's Marc Ambinder is skeptical about the media's role:
"Does John McCain try to turn Obama's decision into a cri de coeur? The media will not help him; instead of focusing on Obama's circumstance-based decision to go back on his implied promise, they'll probably take Obama's side. It's true that voters generally don't pay attention to this type of thing, but if McCain puts it front and center on his mantle, will they?"
Mark Halperin explains the realpolitik--and is equally skeptical about the media's role:
"1. If Obama had stayed in the public system, Republicans would have been shocked.
"2. If Obama had stayed in the public system, political pros in both parties would have accused his advisors of professional malpractice.
"3. If Obama had stayed in the public system, he would have been giving up the type of huge advantage the ambitious people rarely give up.
"4. $200 million+ is a lot to spend in two months.
"5. Obama will now be able to, say, spend $15 million on Texas television ads, giving McCain some tough choices to make.
"6. No candidate has ever had as big a spending advantage as Obama will have for the final two months of the campaign.
"7. Because of the nature of the media's coverage of Obama, he is unlikely to pay too heavy a price for going back on his pledge."
On the liberal side, Atrios is down with it:
"Obama found another solution to the problem, demonstrating that it is possible to raise immense amounts of money from small (and larger, too, of course) donors. It's now part of what presidential candidates will have to figure out how to do to win, and there's nothing wrong with that. The problem was never money in politics, it was the concentration of big money."
Salon's Alex Koppelman approves as well:
Barack Obama's decision to opt out of the public financing system will pay dividends for him down the road -- so many dividends, in fact, that it would have been positively silly for him not to opt out.
Kos takes on Fred Wertheimer of Democracy 21 for a statement saying he's "very disappointed" in Obama:
"This is the same Fred Wertheimer, however, who has long worked with John McCain on these CFR issues, and has turned this campaign season into a series of attacks on Obama. Meanwhile, remember when McCain opted in to public financing in the primary, used that status to gain ballot access and secure a campaign loan, then broke the law by opting out? What do you think Fred Wertheimer said?
"He said nothing. After getting much pressure from bloggers and whatnot, he released a statement . . . kind of critical of McCain. When that statement was interpreted as kind of critical of McCain, he released another statement backtracking."
On the right, National Review's Jim Geraghty goes to the inconvenient record:
"I'm recalling The Washington Post back on February 16:
" As recently as November, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) was unequivocal about whether he would agree to take public financing for the general election if his Republican opponent pledged to do the same. '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?' the Midwest Democracy Network asked in a questionnaire. Mr. Obama's answer was clear. 'Yes,' he wrote. 'If I am the Democratic nominee, I will aggressively pursue an agreement with the Republican nominee to preserve a publicly financed general election.
"Team McCain says they've never been contacted by the Obama campaign to discuss a publicly financed general election.
"The man makes promises he has no intention of keeping."
Red State's Erick Erickson displays his disdain:
"We knew this was coming. We should not be surprised.
"Barack Obama said he was for public financing of his campaign before he was against it. This is how he has run his campaign and handled every issue from Reverend Wright to the security threat that is Iran. Barack Obama is often one way before he is another way.
"The man is incapable of holding to his word."
But it's Dan Riehl of Riehl World who goes out of this world:
"Does Obama represent change you simply can't believe in? Or change not even worth taking seriously? The juries out, but clearly he doesn't represent much new or positive when it comes to political leadership in this country.
"The man's a joke. And if he weren't black, Hillary [Clinton] would have knocked him out early so he could get back to being the partisan hack and Senate back bencher he's barely qualified to be."
Did he really have to go there? What does opting out of public financing, or even dissembling about it, have to do with race?
"I almost feel bad for the idiots who are going to pin their hopes on this guy the media is going to bust a gut to get elected."
A bit of an understatement, though the coverage on this issue is fairly soft.
"He claims that the Republicans have mastered the art of the 527, which has nothing to do with public financing. Democrats have their own 527s, and in 2004 used them much more effectively than the GOP, thanks to George Soros and other big-ticket Democratic donors. This excuse doesn't even pass the smell test.
"Obama then stares sanctimoniously at a point just above and to the right of the camera while declaring his undying support for public financing, which he proves by abandoning it. He then declares the presidential system to be "broken", but never explains why he hasn't lifted a finger to fix it during his three years in the Senate."
Why People Hate the Media, Chapter 4,097:
"MSNBC ran an ad for 'Hardball' Thursday morning teasing a segment on Michelle Obama's image makeover," HuffPost reports. "The ad featured background artwork of female silhouetted dancers while the phrase, 'HER NEW OUTLOOK?' was displayed on the screen. When contacted, an MSNBC representative said the ad was pulled after only running 'once or twice' because it was deemed 'inappropriate.' "
Michelle is getting mostly high marks for her "View" appearance, but as for Cindy McCain, Salon Editor Joan Walsh holds her applause:
"Call me naive, but I was surprised to see Cindy McCain hit Michelle Obama a second time for Obama's oft-dissected remark, "For the first time in my life I am really proud of my country." McCain gave Obama a sly little dig in a campaign appearance back in February, but she hit her again directly in an interview with ABC News airing Thursday morning: 'Everyone has their own experience. I don't know why she said what she said; all I know is that I have always been proud of my country.'
"Cindy, please. Nobody wants to see a future first lady catfight -- do they? I'd have expected Cindy McCain, of all people, to have more empathy for an aspiring first lady's first time in the searing national spotlight. In 2000, after all, McCain had to suffer a Bush-campaign-sponsored whisper campaign about her daughter Bridget (that she was actually her husband's illegitimate black love child), and about her own long-ago addiction to pain medication and subsequent legal troubles. I would have expected McCain to be at least as classy as Laura Bush, who publicly expressed sympathy about the way Obama's "proud" remark was being abused politically . . .
"I'd urge the Obama camp to go light on the rhetoric of 'makeovers' and product relaunches when the subject is Michelle Obama -- this otherwise flattering New York Times profile suffered from that tone. It leaves the impression there's something defective about Michelle Obama and risks turning her into New Coke."
Nobody wants to see a first lady catfight--except the media.
The veep-vetting--or should I say veep-trashing--continues. Ben Wasserstein in the New Republic:
"It's easy to see why [Michael] Bloomberg--or the idea of Bloomberg--is so appealing to both presumptive nominees. McCain and Obama both believe that the brand of politics Bloomberg has come to represent--intelligent, technocratic, results-oriented, bipartisan, or, variously, post-partisan--is their own. To tap Bloomberg, a Democrat-turned-Republican-turned-independent, would represent a genuine break from the red state/blue state, liberal/conservative binary status quo that both candidates decry. Politically, Bloomberg represents Obama and McCain as they see themselves. He would be, in short, the ultimate vanity veep--and part of that vanity would come in ignoring just how bad a choice he would be."
What, then, about the vanity of writing about such a long shot?
Ever wonder how influential unnamed sources are? In a column about what a great source Tim Russert was when he worked for Mario Cuomo, Robert Novak admits:
"The peculiar pro-Cuomo slant of this column could be attributed to Russert."