Last Thursday morning, Barack Obama announced in a video to his supporters that he would become the first presidential nominee to ever drop out of the public campaign financing system since it was introduced in a spate of post-Watergate reforms. Obama had previously pledged to campaign within the system and had never declared it “broken” up until the time he announced his decision.
Later that evening, campaign manager David Plouffe sent an e-mail to supporters saying he wanted “to add a little context to the video message you received earlier announcing that we will not participate in the public financing system for the general election.”
Like Obama’s announcement, it was an exercise in disingenuousness.
“Even though we stood to receive more than $80 million in taxpayer funding for our campaign,” Plouffe wrotes, “the system has been so gamed and exploited by our opponents that it is effectively broken.”
As if Obama was making a great financial sacrifice to righteously uphold a principle.
Of course, by opting out of the system, Obama stands to raise far more than the $80 million cap designed to even the playing field, tamp down the influence of money in campaigns, and prevent campaign spending arms wars into the future.
Instead of upholding a principle, Obama revealed his nature.
“John McCain, the Republican National Committee, and their allies in so-called 527 groups that raise and spend unlimited contributions are dedicated to manipulating this broken system to raise as much money as possible,” Plouffe wrote.
Of course, it’s not as if liberal 527s don’t exist – as the Obama campaign knows all too well.
“Robert Gibbs, who is now Obama’s communications director, became the spokesman for a 527 funded by wealthy Kerry and Gephardt donors; in one of its ads, a picture of Osama Bin Laden was displayed while a narrator intoned that Howard Dean was unqualified to be president,” Marc Ambinder has reported in the Atlantic. “Both Plouffe and David Axelrod, Obama’s chief strategist have worked for 527s in past campaigns.”
McCain, who fought for years alongside Democrat Russ Feingold for campaign finance reform, has tried to bring 527s under the umbrella of the law.
Few people like 527s, but back in December Paul Krugman asked: “Is Mr. Obama saying that if nominated, he’d be willing to run without support from labor 527s, which might be crucial to the Democrats?”
Obama can answer that question in the affirmative now, but only because he’s turned into a fundraising monster – and don’t be fooled by all that grass roots talk. A plethora of stories has detailed the big donors behind Obama’s campaign.
What’s more, Obama had no problem in the primary when 527s acted on his behalf. TalkLeft put it this way: “In Nevada, Obama Loves 527s, Hated Them In Iowa.”
And the San Francisco Chronicle reported in January that “Illinois Sen. Barack Obama – who has criticized Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards for benefiting from “independent expenditure” and political action committees – is taking heat because some of the same kind of organizations are now spending money, organizing and putting up TV ads on his behalf in the Bay Area.”
But Obama is using 527s as a distraction from the stark truth that he simply couldn’t turn his back on the enormous amount of money he thinks he can raise outside of public financing.
Plouffe wrote last week that “We have a historic opportunity to prove that a movement of ordinary people has the power to change the way political campaigns are funded. And we have a clear goal as we begin this new challenge: 50,000 people declaring their independence by making a donation before July 4th.”
Funding campaigns through private donors is hardly historic, nor “change” – unless you are a Democrat who has bragged about introducing public financing legislation as a state senator.
Arguing that opting out of public financing is akin to declaring “independence” from a broken system by outspending your opponent and clogging our airwaves with even more commercials filled with attacks and half-truths does nothing to fix the system’s ills; it only exploits them all the more.
And supporting reform only when no sacrifice is required – i.e., when politically convenient – is as cynical as it gets.