Thursday, June 19, 2008


Two "Perfect" General Election Opponents

Talk about two candidates that deserve each other: The holier-than-thou Frick and Frack of "reform" -- Barack Obama and John McCain. Obama, this morning, announced -- to the surprise of no one -- that he would opt out of the public campaign finance system -- the first general election candidate to do so since the post-Watergate laws were written:
"It's not an easy decision, and especially because I support a robust system of public financing of elections," Obama wrote. "But the public financing of presidential elections as it exists today is broken, and we face opponents who've become masters at gaming this broken system."
"Not an easy decision"? Please.

Anybody who has been paying attention should hardly find this surprising. The man has been averaging about $30 million just this calendar year with a fundraising machine for the ages. He's drawn this from a record 1.5 million donors -- most of whom are giving in small donations, thus allowing him to go back to that well over and over again. No one should begrudge that Obama has completely rewritten the rules of what is possible.

That said...Obama, who is all about integrity and "change you can believe in" made a promise months ago that he would abide by the public financing rules for the general election.

Except, of course, when it is too difficult to say no to the more than $250 million (conservatively estimating) that he can raise himself.

Of course, this would be a perfect "gotcha" for Mr. Campaign Finance Reform himself, John McCain. Except for two things. 1) His campaign finance rules helped create the situation in which we are in now. He first pioneered Internet fundraising in 2000. Then got his campaign finance law passed in 2002, pushing so-called soft money out of the system -- and strengthening the hand of candidates who could raise lots of money in small donations (such as on the Internet). Howard Dean took that idea it to another level in 2003 -- and Obama pushed it into another galaxy in the current cycle.

McCain's people called foul on Obama:
Jill Hazelbaker, the McCain campaign’s communications director, said later on a conference call with reporters: “The true test of a candidate for President is whether he will stand on principle and keep his word to the American people. Barack Obama has failed that test today, and his reversal of his promise to participate in the public finance system undermines his call for a new type of politics.” She added, “This decision will have far-reaching and extraordinary consequences that will weaken and undermine the public financing system.”
Yeah, right, yada yada yada. It's tough for McCain to go around calling Obama a hypocrite, when he's played fast and loose with FEC campaign finance regs himself:
By signing up for matching money, McCain agreed to adhere to strict state-by-state spending limits and an overall limit on spending of $54 million for the primary season, which lasts until the party's nominating convention in September. The general election has a separate public financing arrangement.

But after McCain won a series of early contests and the campaign found its financial footing, his lawyer wrote to the FEC requesting to back out of the program -- which is permitted for candidates who have not yet received any federal money and who have not used the promise of federal funding as collateral for borrowing money.

Mason's letter raises two issues as the basis for his position. One is that the six-member commission lacks a quorum, with four vacancies because of a Senate deadlock over President Bush's nominees for the seats. Mason said the FEC would need to vote on McCain's request to leave the system, which is not possible without a quorum. Until that can happen, the candidate will have to remain within the system, he said.

The second issue is more complicated. It involves a $1 million loan McCain obtained from a Bethesda bank in January. The bank was worried about his ability to repay the loan if he exited the federal financing program and started to lose in the primary race. McCain promised the bank that, if that happened, he would reapply for matching money and offer those as collateral for the loan. While McCain's aides have argued that the campaign was careful to make sure that they technically complied with the rules, Mason indicated that the question needs further FEC review.

If the FEC refuses McCain's request to leave the system, his campaign could be bound by a potentially debilitating spending limit until he formally accepts his party's nomination. His campaign has already spent $49 million, federal reports show. Knowingly violating the spending limit is a criminal offense that could put McCain at risk of stiff fines and up to five years in prison.
Of course, McCain has benefited from the FEC's continued lack of a quorum, so he's going on like his opt-in/opt-out do-si-do is fine and dandy. The fact remains, even if the FEC decided to side with McCain, he's certainly violating the "spirit" of the laws that he himself has been insisting that candidates adhere to.

And don't think Obama's people will point out McCain's inconsistency on his pet issue. Their campaign will take the brief hit from the media and various good-government groups and then just roll on raising oodles of money. As the saying goes, it's better to apologize than ask permission.

Meanwhile, McCain will, like it or not, be forced to take the passive assistance of various GOP-connected 527 groups -- which McCain hates -- who will raise money separately to run negative ads against Obama, separate from the official McCain effort.

As a result, this will create a situation where the two presidential cycles post-McCain-Feingold will each set records in total spending.

As I said before, two perfectly suited holier-than-thou candidates going at it.

UPDATE: ABC's "The Note" expertly critiques the politics of Obama's move -- with a line that's just gotta hurt some of the liberal partisans out there:
Maybe we had it wrong from the start: It's Barack Obama who is running for George Bush's third term, while John McCain just might be pursuing John Kerry's first.

Not on policy, of course (not that Team McCain would much mind that perception these days). But in approach, in temperament, in stability, in take-no-prisoners mindset -- inside which campaign would Karl Rove recognize a piece of himself?

In the one with tightly controlled access, the jugular-aiming (drama-free) political shop, and the temerity to cast aside a fundraising pledge en route to breaking all campaign-finance records?

Or the one with rolling press conferences, scattershot messaging (with missed zingers), and complaints about the other side not playing fair?

We have found the new politics -- and it can spend half a billion dollars to win an election.

There's a signal here that Bush campaign veterans can appreciate: Obama made a coldly calculating decision based on a desire to win. He tossed aside a pledge rather than throwing away the single biggest advantage he enjoys over his rival.

Sounds about right. (h/t, Eric Pfeiffer at Congressional Quarterly).

UPDATE II: For those curious about the extent of Obama's "promise" on agreeing to public financing, read this W. Post analysis from February. While it's true he always kept the "weasel" language of "aggressively pursuing" an agreement on public financing with his eventual Republican opponent, he 1) Answered a candidate questionnaire clearly that he would stay with public financing and 2) Certainly didn't sit down with the McCain campaign in any serious way since Hillary Clinton conceded.

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