Senator Obama announced yesterday that he will not accept public financing, and the spending limits that go with it, for his 2008 Presidential bid. He is the first major candidate to reject such funding since the system went into effect in 1976 in the wake of the Watergate scandal.
This is a reversal -- a flip-flop if you will -- from his previous position. Originally, he said he would take the money if his opponent does so as well. In this Washington Post article, Howard Kurtz notes that the late, great Tim Russert told Obama Feb. 27 "you may break your word" on public financing. Obama responded that he would discuss the issue with Senator McCain after the primaries. Now the McCain people are saying that those discussions never really amounted to much.
Kurtz continues on to criticize the media of largely letting this "reversal" slide. Just one example is the New York Times, which headlined with "Obama, in shift, says he'll reject public funding" (emphasis mine).
He then goes on to make the point, quite correctly on the surface, that Obama makes a fallacious argument. In his video, Obama make the point that Republicans have mastered the art of using largely unregulated 527 organizations as surrogate attack groups. That is a valid argument (remember the Swiftboaters), but the Democrats were fairly successful as well. I ended up as a member of MoveOn.org (mostly because I wanted Dave Matthews tickets). However, 527s have nothing to do with public financing other than they are completely independent of those funds. Furthermore, the blogosphere, both on the left and right, are doing the 527s' jobs largely for free during this election cycle. People who reflexively forward e-mails like this one are feeding the beast as well.
On the other hand, one always has to question how closely the campaigns (illegally) work with the 527s. Not accusing, just sayin'.
Interestingly, it was Senator McCain's 2002 reform act that prohibited the national parties from using soft money for issue advertising. The point of the reform was to limit the influence of large donors. The 527 exemption, of course, rendered the reform largely pointless as they were well financed and effective. The attacks and issue advertising still happen, they are just not blatantly from a particular campaign or party.
Regardless, I am tentatively supporting Senator Obama's decision on this issue. For one thing, a significant portion of the funds he has raised have come from individuals donating small amounts of money. He is rejecting lobbyist and PAC money, including small donations from non-profit lobbyists like this person.
On the other hand it sounds counterintuitive, but Obama has actually raised almost three times as much money as McCain. From CNN we learned yesterday that Obama has raised $272 million to $98 million raised by McCain. The public funding available later in the campaign amounts to a little more than $84 million. If Obama continues to raise money like this, the $84 million will be a paltry amount of money in comparison. Why take a lesser amount of taxpayer money that comes with spending restrictions when you can spend a greater amount of donated money without restriction?
One last point to make. Opponents of campaign finance reform frame this as a free speech issue. They think that contribution limits have the effect of limiting their influence on the campaign. Well, no s**t. For one thing, it is not like the lobbyists and political action committees don't already have plenty of influence already. For another, shouldn't the voice of the common person, the one who can only afford a $25 contribution, count as well? Does it sound more democratic to allow the wealthiest people to continue to have an inordinate amount of influence in politics? Not from the perspective of a poor person.
Update: Talking Points Memo is reporting that MoveOn.org has ended its 527 activities in response to Senator Obama's wishes that such groups not spend money on his behalf. The practical upshot is that the campaign gets to control the message. Of course, this does not apply to the blogosphere.