February 18, 2008

Obama's Corner On Public Financing

Barack Obama has made a historic presidential run this cycle primarily on the basis of changing the political culture in Washington. His unbelievable success has ironically set a trap for a potential general-election run. Obama has to choose now between keeping his word, or conveniently breaking it and exposing himself as just another self-serving politician:

A year ago, at the beginning of his bid to secure the clean-up-Washington mantle, Barack Obama made a pact with John McCain that, if the two were to be their party's nominees, each would accept public financing for the general election. That agreement sounded far-fetched: At the time, McCain was in the middle of his high-profile free-fall in the polls, while Obama trailed Hillary Clinton by wide margins in virtually every poll.

Now, McCain is virtually the nominee-in-waiting. By his campaign's count, he has already surpassed the necessary threshold of delegates needed to win the GOP convention in St. Paul. Obama, too, is close to winning his side. He has Clinton against a wall; she needs wins in key states of Ohio and Texas in order to keep her campaign afloat. The scenario that the two candidates who most talk about reforming Washington will actually face each other in November looks more than possible, it looks probable.

Obama's own success has forced him to make a choice that opens him to attack either way. Both of his opponents, smelling potential weakness, are already hammering him, pushing him to make the choice that would give McCain a much better position from which to win the presidency.

The deal got made in March 2007. The New York Times reported on it at the time as a measure of the reformist mentality of both candidates:

Senator John McCain joined Senator Barack Obama on Thursday in promising to accept a novel fund-raising truce if each man wins his party’s presidential nomination.

The promises by Mr. McCain, Republican of Arizona, and Mr. Obama, Democrat of Illinois, are an effort to resuscitate part of the ailing public financing system for presidential campaigns. ...

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

"Aggressively pursue" an agreement to use public financing -- that's what Obama's campaign promised in March 2007. They also demanded that all of the presidential campaigns make the same pledge. McCain took him up on it; will Obama renege on his pledge now?

He has a lot of reasons to do so, and they have numbers like 20 and 100 on them. He has proven himself a master fundraiser and organizer. He has outraised the Clintons -- no mean feat -- and estimates of his goals for private fundraising for a general election top $300 million. Hillary, on the other hand, has made no such pledge for the general election, nor is she likely to do so. She has used this pledge as a way to argue that Obama is too naive and too self-limited to make a run for the White House, and Democrats are pressuring him to break his pledge.

John McCain may want him to do exactly that. He has had his share of difficulties in raising money in the primaries, and he doesn't want to get in a fundraising war. If he does, he may have to tap Mitt Romney as VP just to keep up with Obama. However, he may gain more of an advantage over Obama for breaking his word given just last year to remain in this system. It paints Obama as an opportunist of the first rank, a man who gladly sells out his principles when people flash enough cash.

John McCain can beat Obama under those conditions. Obama may not know it yet, but without any sort of resume at all, the only advantage he has is his honorable intentions. If McCain strips that away from him, he's just a neophyte, unaccomplished Chicago politician with nothing else but a great speaking style to recommend him.


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