Humorist Kin Hubbard commented that when someone says it’s not the money, it’s the principle of the thing — it’s the money.
That certainly applies to Barack Obama, who supports public financing but can’t bring himself to use it because he argues the system is broken. What he is really saying is that he can raise vast more sums through private means that he hopes will give him the advantage in his race to the White House against Republican John McCain.
To justify his breaking of a pledge and becoming the first general election presidential candidate to eschew public funding since it began in 1976, he blames the system and McCain. Well, it’s one thing to break a promise in a presidential race — it happens all the time, both before and after the election — but it’s quite another to blame one’s opponent as the reason for doing so.
The Illinois senator laid the cause of his decision partially on the doorstep of the Republican nominee, who has decided to accept public financing. Obama’s advisers hinted McCain would take advantage of the loophole in election law that permits so-called 527 organizations to spend vast sums on promoting issues as long as their efforts are independent of the candidate’s campaign. The successful Swift Boat effort against 2004 Democratic nominee John Kerry is an example.
But in so deciding Obama has shown a breach of veracity that certainly raises questions about the Mr. Clean, non-politician politician image he has studiously crafted through his spectacular rise to White House contention.
He said that he still supported public financing as a means of eliminating the special interests and the obligations they engender, but that the current system was broken, citing the 527s. Furthermore, his aides told reporters he did not keep his pledge to confer with McCain — there was one brief meeting between their counsels — because he believed the Arizonan was going to take full advantage of these organizations. In actuality, campaign finance experts believe Obama is likely to benefit as much or more than McCain from 527 spending.
The real reason for opting out of the public financing was that his network of supporters that helped him win the nomination would contribute far more than the $85 million public fund limit for each candidate, prompting one reporter to suggest that he was for public financing in 2006 before his candidacy and will be for it again in 2009 after the race. Recent estimates are that he will raise and spend some $300 million before the voters go to the polls in November even though his May numbers were only a few thousand dollars more than McCain’s. Both have raised $22 million plus.
Obama’s decision could have a sizable impact in an atmosphere where money has increasingly become the fuel of a successful campaign. McCain urged him to reconsider and honor his commitment to accept public funding. But the ability to spend huge amounts on television advertising early and sustain that through the next four months is extremely important and obviously too tempting to ignore given his ability to raise funds. Obama ads began running in Washington and elsewhere over the weekend, and he plans an extended and costly 50-state strategy.
Arcane matters of campaign finance normally bring a big yawn from voters interested in other issues like the economy and war. That probably would be true in this case except that it seems to be the first crack in Obama’s superior, at times almost holier than thou, presentation. If he can break a pledge with such ease, can he be trusted to keep his promises in other areas?
The fact is that both candidates, on the issues at least, have made and will continue to make promises they can’t possibly keep and if they could would further bankrupt the country. That’s just the way of American politics where pledging to bring about wholesale change is just standard procedure. Most voters accept that. Failures can be explained away as the pledges having been a good idea at the time.
But Obama’s quick switch in this case and the unbelievable explanations are pretty easily defined as disingenuous. Far better that he had just said from the beginning that, "it’s the money." It leaves the impression that perhaps Obama is not quite the renaissance politician he and his supporters claim he is. That might not have been the case had he said from the start that he was going to press every advantage he could find. Earl Long once said that in politics, "We use everything we can get our hands on."
(E-mail Dan K. Thomasson, former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service, at thomassondan(at)aol.com.)