Obama Edging Away from Public Financing Option
by Jonathan Singer, Thu Feb 14, 2008 at 09:18:11 AM EST
When I read this morning that John McCain was talking about potentially accepting public financing in the general election, I worried that one of my fears about a Barack Obama candidacy would be realized: That he would, as he suggested last year, follow the Republican nominee's suit in opting in to the public financing system, constraining his ability to run a 50-state strategy (because of the spending cap) and forgoing the opportunity to capitalize on the Democrats' (and his) fundraising advantage over the GOP. But now, according to Ben Smith, the Obama campaign is edging away from this possibility.
Obama's campaign is backing away from suggestions that the Illinois senator would publicly finance his campaign in the general election, if he's the nominee, and referring to public financing as an "option" -- not as the "pledge" McCain's campaign claims Obama made.
McCain campaign manager Rick Davis told reporters yesterday that McCain would run a publicly financed campaign in the general election if Obama would.
I first pressed Obama's camp on this particular point more than a year ago, on Feb. 7, 2007, when they first floated the notion. And they deliberately preserved some wiggle room then.
"We're looking to see if we can preserve the option," spokesman Bill Burton said, when asked if the campaign was committing, conditionally, to public financing,
I asked Burton again today if this was a "pledge," and he repeated that it's an "option."
As alluded to in my first paragraph, I am decidedly of the opinion that the Democratic nominee -- whether Obama or Hillary Clinton -- should opt out of the public financing system in the general election. The hard cap on overall spending required of candidates participating in the public financing system makes it effectively impossible to run a meaningful campaign in more than about a dozen states -- let alone run a 50-state strategy. This means that playing in states that are trending blue but not quite there yet (think Colorado, Virginia, etc.) becomes a significantly more risky proposition because every cent spent there is a cent that can't be spent in more traditional swing states like Pennsylvania or Florida. But by opting out of the public financing system a candidate is not subject to spending caps, meaning that the opportunity cost of campaigning in reddish-purple states -- or even red states -- is significantly lower at the limit on spending is only how much money can be raised, rather than an arbitrary number set by the number of Americans checking off a box on their tax filings.
Beyond that, opting out of the public financing system could ironically serve the cause of campaign finance reform. As the system currently stands, unregulated soft money pours into 527 organizations and other such committees, both because the presidential campaigns themselves can't accept contributions during the general election and because the campaigns are limited in what they can spend. But there is a possibility that 527 organizations will be denied some of their funding -- or, at the least, they will be made relatively less important -- by the official presidential campaigns being able to spend hundreds of millions of dollars rather than just tens. Why is this important, you ask? The hundreds of millions of dollars that have already flowed into the coffers of presidential candidates and would continue to do so are regulated, limited and largely disclosed. They are all hard money contributions. In the battle between hard money and soft money, if the amount of hard money that can be spent comes closer to parity with the soft money -- or even overtakes it -- as a result of candidates opting out of the public finance system, the overall financing of the general election will actually be more regulated and open than if the candidates opted into the program.
So here's to hoping that Obama says no, rather than yes, to this option.