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Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Campaign Finance Reporter
Tuesday, June 24, 2008; 11:00 AM

Don't want to miss out on the latest in politics? Start each day with The Post Politics Hour. Join in each weekday morning at 11 a.m. as a member of The Washington Post's team of White House and Congressional reporters answers questions about the latest in buzz in Washington and The Post's coverage of political news.

Washington Post campaign finance reporter Matthew Mosk was online Tuesday, June 24 at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the latest news in politics.

The transcript follows.

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Archive: Post Politics Hour discussion transcripts

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Matthew Mosk: Good morning. Sen. Obama is preparing for a series of unity fundraisers with Sen. Clinton while Sen. McCain will be raising funds in Las Vegas. This is the time when the presidential candidates fuel up for the five months ahead. And so, a good time to talk about money and politics. I welcome your questions.

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Portland, Ore.: Sen. McCain raised essentially as much last month as Sen. Obama did, and the Republican National Committee is sitting on about $54 million while the Democratic National Committee has only $4 million (cash on hand in both cases). Does this imply that as a practical matter, Sen. Obama really has no financial advantage over Sen. McCain? Why in your view is the Democratic National Committee being outraised by the Republican National Committee? Thanks.

Matthew Mosk: Several questions have come in on the subject of May fundraising -- and particularly that Sens. Obama and McCain raised roughly the same amounts ($21 million-$22 million).

So why is there a perception that Sen. Obama will have a huge money advantage in the coming months? A few reasons:

1. Half the Democrats (including many of the party's longtime givers and most prodigious fundraisers) just now will be joining the Obama team having moved from Sen. Clinton's campaign. They would not have been a presence in May, but they are likely to provide a major boost in coming weeks.

2. Sen. Obama has had a much stronger history of online fundraising than Sen. McCain, and those dynamics probably won't change much.

3. Democrats, as a whole, are raising much more money this year because the party is energized.

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Southwest Nebraska: I felt that Juan Williams was a bit snarky on NPR this morning in talking about Obama's fundraising. He seemed to be saying that Hollywood is Obama's piggy bank. Which is more significant to Obama's campaign -- celebrity donations, or the average contributor's $100?

Matthew Mosk: Hello Nebraska! This is a very good question, and I believe the answer is both. Let's just assume that by "celebrity donors," we really mean the large givers who traditionally have fueled Democratic campaigns (of which Hollywood moguls account for only a portion). So far, Obama has shown an ability to operate a hybrid fundraising machine -- raising money from these traditional donors (and there are several Hollywood-type events scheduled for coming months, including a big event at the Disney concert hall in Los Angeles today) -- and from so-called small dollars who send in money through the Internet.

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Raleigh, N.C.: Is John McCain breaking the law on public financing by getting in and then pulling out of the system without permission? I've seen some lefty sites flat-out say he's breaking the law, but traditional media sites have said he is not, so I thought I'd go to the expert.

Matthew Mosk: Thanks for the question, Raleigh.

The reason you're not getting a clear answer on this is that it's in dispute. For those who have not followed it, this is a question about Sen. John McCain's decision to enter, and then withdraw, from the public financing system for the primaries. (Not to be confused with the public funding for the general election.) When McCain's campaign was in financial trouble last summer, he expressed an interest in public funds for the primary, but when his campaign rebounded, he withdrew his certification.

The FEC chairman wrote a letter to his campaign saying, in essence, that the commission may need to vote to release him from his commitment. The chairman said a key question was, did Sen. McCain use his position in the public financing system to help him secure a crucial loan?

McCain's campaign lawyer, Trevor Potter, has said the campaign never did anything that would force the campaign to stay inside the system. The Democrats have disputed this. The DNC has sued in hopes of getting a court to weigh in on this.

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Washington: Do you agree that the distinction between taking and not taking public funding for the general election is not as clear-cut as many would have you believe? McCain's supporters can make "independent expenditures" without limit on his behalf, and the FEC is unlikely to find coordination unless the campaign and those making the expenditures sit down and discuss every last aspect of what is to be done.

Also, the FEC allows unlimited spending for "general election legal and accounting expenditures," and has defined this so broadly as to encompass many activities not usually so considered. The actual expenditure cap, if there is in fact any cap at all, is substantially higher than the $85 million he officially will receive from the government.

Matthew Mosk: This question comes from a well-informed reader, and I do agree with his/her point. The $84.1 million that the government will provide Sen. McCain represents only part of what he can spend. He will be able to spend those separate "legal and accounting" funds to pay for some of the campaign's big-ticket expenses. And he will be able to split the cost of other items -- such as TV ads -- with the Republican Party, so long as the ads qualify as "hybrids" because they mention both the presidential candidate and down-ticket races.

And that's not including spending by the RNC on voter turnout efforts and other election related matters, and spending by independent groups on ads. (Though Sen. McCain has said he will object to independent ads, consistent with his longstanding position on that question.)

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Boston: Not a finance question, but why do Republicans consistently ask terrorists to get involved in our politics?

washingtonpost.com: Terror Strike Would Help McCain, Top Adviser Says (Post, June 24)

Matthew Mosk: Alright, enough campaign finance nitty gritty for now ... I'm not sure I completely agree with this characterization, but certainly the flap about McCain adviser Charlie Black's comments seem to be dominating the chatter today. What do you think of his suggestion that a terror strike would help McCain? Has his apology and Sen. McCain's repudiation of the remark helped to make this a nonissue?

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Seattle: Good morning, and thanks for having these chats. McCain advisor Charlie Black has some splainin' to do after his comments that a fresh terror attack "would be a big advantage to him." What is Charlie's position in the campaign? Was he a large donor? Will he ever work in Washington again?

Matthew Mosk: Thanks Seattle. I suspect Charlie Black will be just fine, at least long-term. He's a senior adviser to the campaign, a position he has held with numerous Republican presidential candidates, and he's had a longstanding, successful career as a lobbyist in town. As for the immediate impact on him, it's too soon to say.

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Baltimore: Re: Charlie Black's comments on a terrorist attack "helping" McCain -- can anyone honestly believe that a guy who has been in Washington as long as Black has says something like this off the cuff? What is the difference between saying it would help and wishing it would happen, when you are working for the candidate in question? Furthermore, I'm not even sure Black is correct politically. McCain is tied to Bush, so if a devastating attack happened in the last days of Bush's presidency, isn't that proof that Republicans can't protect us?

Matthew Mosk: Thank you, Baltimore, for these thoughts on Charlie Black.

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Nantucket, Mass.: I noticed a bandage on the top of McCain's head in news photos yesterday when he inclined his head during responses to questioning. Has another cancerous melanoma been removed from the top of his head?

washingtonpost.com: McCain gets scrape after run-in with auto rooftop (AP, June 24)

Matthew Mosk: McCain folks say this is not cancer -- just a bump on the head. But I noticed this item on the Drudge Report this morning, and my reaction was that people are highly sensitized to Sen. McCain's age and condition. This helps explain why the McCain campaign allowed reporters to review stacks of medical records that concluded he was in good health.

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Bremerton, Wash.: Matthew, is McCain-Feingold officially dead, or does anyone think it can be "tweaked" further to make it more effective? Is it really going to take a Constitutional amendment to get some money out of politics?

Matthew Mosk: Well, it seems you all are wonky like me. Lots of campaign finance questions stacked up here.

I think what Bremerton refers to here is not McCain-Feingold, but the Presidential Public Financing System, which emerged after Watergate to try and keep the corrupting influence of big money out of presidential politics. For the past few cycles, most major candidates have declined public funding in the primaries. Sen. Obama will be the first to also decline the money in the general election.

For years candidates found the federal funds appealing because the amounts were enough to make it worth doing. Several members of the Senate (including Sen. Russ Feingold) have argued that the formulas are outdated and should be updated. Legislation along those lines is pending.

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Richmond, Va.: A lot of media and other pundits are talking about the fact that in May, Obama only raised $22 million -- much less, apparently, than a lot of other months. I haven't heard what might account for that smaller amount. Have you?

Matthew Mosk: Let's get back to those May fundraising numbers with this good question from Richmond.

Yesterday, I asked the Obama campaign about the May number, which is high by most standards, but fairly modest for Obama. So why did his fundraising slow down? Obama's campaign aides say the candidate was focused on tough contests with Sen. Clinton and so spent less time fundraising. The campaign also sent out fewer appeals by email during May.

That may be true, but I think the slow-down speaks to the unpredictable nature of online fundraising. Donations online typically flow in when people are paying a lot of attention, or when a specific event (like Super Tuesday in February) drive them to their computers to give money. May didn't offer as much in that regard as the prior months did.

What this tells me is to expect surges of online donations during the political conventions, and in the weeks leading up to Election Day in November.

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Wilmington, N.C.: I don't quite understand this issue about Sen. Hillary Clinton's campaign debts. Is it customary for the nominee with the proper number of delegates to help with other's finances? I was under the impression it was initially the Obama's camp's way of getting Sen. Clinton out of the race. Can you please clarify this for me? Thank you much.

Matthew Mosk: Thanks for this question. It certainly has on some occasions been the case that one candidate will help another retire a debt. I'm told the Clinton and Obama folks still are discussing this.

There are a couple of possibilities for how this might happen. Sen. Obama could send out an e-mail to his list of supporters asking them to help Sen. Clinton. Or, he may host a couple of high profile fundraisers for her. Or, he'll ask members of his national finance committee to reach out to their friends to donate to her campaign.

He may do this, in part, to help bring aboard some of Sen. Clinton's top fundraisers, so they can help him with his general election efforts. He may also ask Sen. Clinton to request that her general election donors use the refunds they will receive to donate to him.

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Minneapolis: While we're on fundraising, Sen. McCain held an event here last week where they were requesting donations of up to $50,000 from individual donors, which would be split, according to legal requirements, among the campaign, the RNC and various states' party committees. Are the Democrats/Obama campaign holding similar events, or is Sen. Obama focusing fundraising efforts only on his campaign?

Matthew Mosk: Hi Minneapolis. The answer to your question is yes, the Democrats have set up a similar program to the Republicans' that essentially allows a single donor to write a five figure check (up to $70,000 in some instances) by parceling out the money to various accounts.

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Franconia, Va.: Charlie Black just committed the classic gaffe of speaking the truth in public. The destruction of the World Trade Center towers and the deaths of those Americans working inside them did lead -- involuntarily of course -- to a much more positive national profile for Giuliani. It's not clear which major American landmark Black is mentally picturing here, or the number of American dead, but another such attack might indeed help John McCain -- although maybe not so much after this remark. I can't imagine a news executive talking for even an instant about the wonderful ratings bump and commercial visibility that his or her network would get from another Sept. 11 attack. I guess television is a cleaner business than party politics.

Matthew Mosk: Thanks for these additional thoughts on Charlie Black. A couple more to follow...

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The Political Mind: Doesn't anyone who works in politics have to think about that stuff? I am not saying it was smart to say it, but I don't even work in politics actively, and I analyze what the effect of a attack would be all the time. For example, taking what Baltimore said -- if there was a terrorist attack before the election, odds are we would go into a Martial Law situation. Anyone with half a brain in Washington has to be smart enough to think that way -- we just aren't supposed to say it.

Matthew Mosk: And this. From the political mind.

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Watergate and Public Financing: Actually, the problem is not the amount of money in campaigns, it's the small group of people who were able to contribute large sums. What Obama has done is enlarged the group of people and shrink the amounts. His fundraising in California is with the national committee, so the cap per person is larger -- much like what McCain is doing with the RNC.

Obama also actively has moved to rein in the 527s -- MoveOn.org just closed their 527 operation. McCain showed that he doesn't have the influence (or maybe it's the desire) to shut down state Republican smear campaigns, such as in North Carolina during the primary there. Obama just looked at the money that would be used against him by the other side -- McCain, the Republican National Committee, 527s and the state parties -- and decided that he would be outgunned with public financing.

Matthew Mosk: On your first point, yes. The question was one of outsized influence. As for independent activity, I'm not sure I agree with you. I think it may be too early to tell whether Sen. Obama or Sen. McCain has been able to shut down these outside groups.

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Indianapolis: To get the money out of politics would require not a constitutional amendment, but God's remaking the universe.

Matthew Mosk: Ha!

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Rochester, N.Y.: Is it possible for candidates to shift money around a bit from one month to the next? Say, not cash the check that comes in May 27 til June 1? Because it might have been smart for Obama to have a low May number, in the sense that it might motivate donors to give in June and add extra money to a huge June payday. If Obama comes in with $70 million-plus in June, that might be a big booster PR-wise.

Matthew Mosk: It's an interesting thought. I think more likely is the campaigns hold off on paying bills for a couple extra days (weeks) to tamp down their spending numbers. I suspect they cash those checks as fast as they can.

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It's not what Black said:... it's the false, obligatory apology that inevitably is issued after such a comment. It is likely an unspoken wisdom that a high-tension terrorist situation would work to McCain's advantage politically, if he handled it well. The knock against Obama is that he just doesn't have the background or experience to be effective in a national crisis brought about by terrorism.

Is that true? Maybe, maybe not. It's worked well to keep Congress and the public in check for several years. It's ugly to think and ugly to say, but certainly not surprising that this would have been running through Black's mind. Politicians and their aides with access to the media are not actually supposed to speak their minds -- that's where Black went wrong.

Matthew Mosk: Thanks for this, another interesting take on Charlie Black.

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Fairfax County, Va.: Your point about online donations in the run-up to Election Day makes it even clearer why Obama made the choice he did. If that's one of the core fundraising periods, eliminating all donations during those two months would be especially disastrous, as the pre-convention months would be, by contrast, a relative low. Do you think Obama will be hurt politically (as opposed to financially) if small-donor donations taper off in June and July, as you predict naturally would occur? He's tied so much of his campaign to these, and he and Clinton competed on these stats.

Matthew Mosk: I suspect that Sen. Obama's campaign is planning for these lulls in online donations a couple ways. One, they'll probably return with some of those artificial motivators, like contests and chances to have dinner with the candidate. They probably also will focus more of their attention during those periods (as they are now) on raising money from the fat cat donors.

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Cumming, Ga.: Why in the world would Obama opt for taxpayers' campaign financing when 1.5 millions of us are willing to donate to his campaign over and over again? That's public funding at its best right there. Just use the $84 million that would have been allocated to the Obama campaign to build some levees.

Matthew Mosk: I think the interesting thing about this question is that, among Obama's online supporters especially, there was strong sentiment in favor of him forgoing the public funds. Daily Kos and others urged Obama to take advantage of what could be a major political fundraising edge. Whether the political fallout from breaking his pledge will matter is unclear, but Republicans are pushing to see that it does.

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Matthew Mosk: Folks, I'm afraid that's all the time for today. Lots of great questions, and a healthy interest in campaign finance issues(!). Thank so much for joining me today, and stay tuned for the latest twists and turns.

Best,

Matt

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