Friday, June 20, 2008

Why Obama shouldn't fear a backlash about public financing

I’m getting a little tired of all the hay being made of Obama’s decision to opt out of public financing. There has been a lot of hand-wringing by Republicans and some claims of the media that Obama’s decision constitutes a grand shift. While I am personally an advocate for fully publicly financed campaigns for public office, I fully support Obama’s decision. Let’s look at a couple of the issues surrounding the move.

First, Obama never said that he would take public financing. What he said was that he would discuss it with McCain’s campaign. They discussed it, and Obama’s campaign says that McCain wasn’t interested in reigning in outside groups or 527 organizations that don’t adhere to campaign finance restrictions. Obama has started to do that because we hear today that will cease its 527 activity, which is a pretty big deal. is (at least perceptually) one of the larger and better noticed groups out there, so their move to back off really helps Obama perceptually more than any ads they would have put out could have done. The only “shift” for Obama is not meeting with McCain when he said that he would to figure something out. While the two might not have met personally, the campaigns do appear to have had some contact. They could have put forward more of a good faith effort if they were looking to appease the McCain campaign, but I’m not sure they need the McCain campaign’s approval. Sure, McCain will say it’s a breach of trust, but it’s difficult for them to translate this technical maneuver into a longstanding pattern of lying or breaking promises.

Second, while I support the decision, I am a little flabbergasted at the Obama campaign's fairly milquetoast defense of the move. Apart from some bloggers (Kos in particular), most of the people defending Obama have just recited his mild argument that the system is broken. It has fairly simple counterarguments, and it comes across as at least somewhat disingenuous. I don’t know why Obama isn’t just stepping up and saying, “Look, these objections would make sense if we got most of our money the old fashioned way (with lobbyists and PACs), but we don’t. Our campaign is directly people-powered. We are functionally a publicly financed campaign. The point of campaign finance laws is to prevent the use of money to influence a candidate’s positions. People give our campaign money because they believe in me. It would be wrong for me to return the investment of these great people just so we get caught in this rigged system (one that McCain is scamming).” Obama and some of his people have been making a similar argument kinda half-heartedly, but they can and should be much stronger in saying that this is a different kind of campaign. The direct nature of the funding for this campaign makes everyone’s complaints moot. Just. Say. THAT!

I like the decision, and I think ultimately the objections will dissipate in time (only Republicans will continue to whine about it after a few days). I just wish that the Obama people would more vigorously defend the decision and stop giving the opposition’s complaints as much credit as they have.

UPDATE: David Corn over at Mother Jones has a similar defense of Obama, but he tries to come across as more even-handed.

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