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Obama Breaks Campaign Finance Pledge?

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[Republished from 2008Central.net]

This morning, in an email to supporters, Barack Obama announced that he will be opting out of the public financing system for the general election (video). The announcement has been widely expected for a few months now, so it wasn’t very much of a surprise.

Obama explained his decision, saying:

It’s not an easy decision, and especially because I support a robust system of public financing of elections. But the public financing of presidential elections as it exists today is broken, and we face opponents who’ve become masters at gaming this broken system. John McCain’s campaign and the Republican National Committee are fueled by contributions from Washington lobbyists and special interest PACs. And we’ve already seen that he’s not going to stop the smears and attacks from his allies running so-called 527 groups, who will spend millions and millions of dollars in unlimited donations.

It’s completely fair for a candidate to contend that the problems with campaign finance system are so significant that it would be better not to participate in it. However, there’s a bit more to this situation that raises some questions.

First, here’s a review of the time line (emphasis added):

In February 2007, Obama asked the FEC if it would be possible for him to accept money for the general election without disqualifying him for opting into the public financing system later in the process if he were to return the money. The FEC ruled that this would be acceptable. Thereby allowing Obama to preserve the option of opting into the public financing system for the general election.

When Obama made the request to the FEC, Obama Campaign spokesman, Bill Burton, said:

Senator Obama has long been a proponent of public financing of campaigns and we are asking the FEC to take a step that could preserve the public financing option for the party’s nominees”

And, a lawyer for the Obama Campaign, added:

“Should both major party nominees elect to receive public funding, this would preserve the public financing system, now in danger of collapse.”

The primary purpose for Obama’s request to the FEC was to allow for both parties candidates to come to a truce for the general election, the NY Times summarizes:

But Mr. Obama, campaigning on pledges to clean up politics, argued in his filing with the commission that the public financing system had insulated candidates from a corrupting dependence on big donors. He asserted that the system could be preserved for the general election through bipartisan agreement if party nominees returned early contributions.

The plausibility of such an agreement is not clear. One nominee is likely to have a financial edge on the other at the outset of the campaign, and accepting public financing would mean relinquishing that edge.

Following the FEC’s ruling on the matter on March 1, 2007, McCain accepted the Obama campaign’s proposal to work out a bipartisan arrangement regarding public financing. McCain’s campaign manager at the time, Terry Nelson, said:

“Should John McCain win the Republican nomination, we will agree to accept public financing in the general election, if the Democratic nominee agrees to do the same.”

At the time, this was welcomed news for the Obama campaign and the public financing system. Obama spokesman, Bill Burton, responded to McCain’s acceptance by saying:

“We hope that each of the Republican candidates pledges to do the same.”

Mr. Burton added that if nominated Mr. Obama would “aggressively pursue an agreement” with whoever was his opponent.

In September 2007, responded “yes” to a survey question from Midwest Democracy Network that asked: “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?.” In addition to his “yes” response, Obama stated:

In February 2007, I proposed a novel way to preserve the strength of the public financing system in the 2008 election. My plan requires both major party candidates to agree on a fundraising truce, return excess money from donors, and stay within the public financing system for the general election. My proposal followed announcements by some presidential candidates that they would forgo public financing so they could raise unlimited funds in the general election. The Federal Election Commission ruled the proposal legal, and Senator John McCain (R-AZ) has already pledged to accept this fundraising pledge. If I am the Democratic nominee, I will aggressively pursue an agreement with the Republican nominee to preserve a publicly financed general election.

Yet, in today’s announcement, Obama supported his decision on the basis that the public system was broken and thus not worth saving. This certainly doesn’t seem to comport with his previous statements on the subject.

[NOTE: Since this diary was initially published, additional information regarding some of my questions have been answered. Although the accounts are disputed, there was at least one meeting between the Obama and McCain campaigns regarding this issue. Thus, until further research and verification can be done, please take these questions indicated below with this information in mind]

And, it raises some questions:

  • Nothing about the system has changed since February 2007, so why was the system worth saving then and not worth saving now?
  • Did the Obama campaign at least try to pursue some type of fundraising agreement with the McCain campaign? If so, what was the nature of these discussions? (Both the McCain and Obama campaigns have been contacted regarding this question. I will follow up if/when they get back to me).

That said, the reality is simple: it is politically smart for Obama to remain outside of public financing. First, he has an enormous fundraising potential and to self handicap would be silly. Second, as noted, the attacks from independent groups are likely to get especially nasty, so it would be a huge political risk to limit his campaign’s ability to directly respond. As already noted, these are completely fair reasons for not opting into the system.

My issue isn’t with Obama refusing to take public funds. Rather, my issue is with Obama spending most of 2007 arguing in favor of the public financing system and promising to support it should he become the party’s nominee, only to disregard those previous statements when he actually became the party’s nominee.

Further, I think it is a political miscalculation for the campaign to assume that people will not care about Obama’s changed position on the issue. Here’s why: [Continued at 2008Central.net]