On June 19, Barack Obama announced that he would forgo public financing in the general election. I think both the decision itself and the resulting media coverage deserve some further discussion. So I'm going to cover both facets of this issue in separate blog posts today...
On June 19, Barack Obama announced that he would forgo public financing in the general election. I think both the decision itself and the resulting media coverage deserve some further discussion. So I'm going to cover both facets of this issue in separate blog posts today.
First, let's address the decision and the immediate response.
That the McCain campaign is jumping all over Obama for this move is no suprise. They're going to take every opportunity to hit the Democratic nominee hard on any perceived shifts in position.
Meanwhile, the media's harsh treatment of Obama on this issue isn't all that shocking either. If you run on the mantle of "change" and a "new kind of politics," you expose yourself to more forceful criticism when your campaign strategy appears too pragmatic.
Least surprising of all is the campaign's actual decision to pass up public funds. As has been noted elsewhere, it makes perfect sense from a tactical standpoint. We learned over the past eight years how high the stakes are when it comes to presidential politics. No sane Democratic strategist would give up Obama's significant advantage in resources this time around.
But while the GOP and various good government groups have lambasted him, the decision to pass up public funds shouldn't be viewed as evidence that Obama isn't serious about campaign finance reform. In fact, I'd argue that the most effective way to ensure reform is to win the election. And by opting out of the system this year, he has a much greater chance of doing just that.
I would even offer up Obama's fundraising operation as an example of what a reformed system should attempt to replicate. On the one hand, he has taken a good deal of money from Wall Street and other corporate interests. But the influence of those contributions has been offset by the army of small donor contributors that have helped fill his war chest. In short, the grassroots intensity surrounding his campaign has diluted the influence of the special interests that support him.
This phenomenon deserves some real attention as we discuss how best to overhaul campaign finance in this country. While good government groups propose equalizing the resources available to every candidate, what we should strive for is a public finance system that doesn't shut big donors out altogether, but rather gives ordinary Americans more influence. Mark Schmitt explained the principles behind this so-called "small donor democracy" model in his 2007 article on campaign finance:
Give small donors the same opportunity to express the intensity of their preferences as large donors. Don’t build complex systems that put government in the position of trying to equalize all resources or ban all contributions. Instead, let voters shape the process through their own preferences, through organizing to enhance their power, and by using public funds to echo and enhance the preferences of ordinary citizens.
So rather than attacking Obama for the corporate contributions he has accepted or for his decision to opt out of public financing, let's focus our attention on what his campaign has achieved -- it really does represent a "change" -- and figure out how to make it an attainable goal for those who'll follow.