$150 Million Man

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

MANY IN HIS own party questioned whether Sen. Barack Obama was right to forgo $84 million in federal funds for the general election in order to be free to raise and spend unlimited amounts on his own. The answer, as a matter of strategy, is in: Mr. Obama took in an astonishing $150 million in September alone, for a total of more than $600 million for the primaries and general election campaign. But what is the answer as a matter of ethics?

These huge sums are not, as some have suggested, evidence of the pernicious return of big money to federal campaigns or of the failure of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform law. That worthy measure ended the unhealthy practice of candidates, including presidential nominees, soliciting wealthy individuals, labor unions and corporations for huge checks, often $1 million and up. Much of Mr. Obama's money has arrived in small donations; in any event, donors are limited to a maximum of $4,600 ($2,300 each for the primary and general election). Mr. Obama's haul reflects the enormous enthusiasm his campaign has generated.

Republicans have been zinging Mr. Obama for failing to report the names of those who have made small contributions, $200 or less. Such disclosure is not required, but the McCain campaign has posted the names of these donors, and it would be preferable if both campaigns did. Yet the real-world risk of vast sums of illegal money sloshing around the Obama campaign is negligible.

It remains troubling that Mr. Obama went back on his word to accept public financing. That system was created after Watergate to limit the amount of money pouring into presidential campaigns, establish a level playing field for the candidates and free them from the demands of constant fundraising. Mr. Obama's excuse for reneging on his promise -- concern about outside groups spending enormous amounts on attack ads -- has not materialized. Sen. John McCain has certainly been no slouch at raising money for the Republican National Committee to benefit his campaign, but Mr. Obama is doing the same for the Democrats, and the financial imbalance remains.

The public financing system is badly outdated in terms of its structure and the amount of money it provides to presidential nominees. The new president should work to overhaul the system for a new era in which the Internet has emerged as a powerful fundraising tool and campaigns are more expensive than previously contemplated. Writing in USA Today in June, after he decided not to take public funding, Mr. Obama declared himself "firmly committed to reforming the system as president, so that it's viable in today's campaign climate." If Mr. McCain wins the presidency, he may have a motive to fix the system. If Mr. Obama wins, he will have an obligation.

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