Thursday, June 19, 2008

Obama's refusal of public funds: there is no such thing as a fair fight

Early in the primary campaign, way back before Obama caught on and started raking in the donations, he implied that he'd be willing to take public financing if the Republican nominee agreed, if airtime was provided free, and if they could get the 527's to stay out of the election.

On the one hand, he should never have said this, but I think he didn't realize the universality of his own appeal (an odd weakness for a guy running for president). The GOP will hit him for backing out after McCain called his bluff (after all, McCain's staring down the barrel of a massive funding disadvantage at the very moment that a boatload of swing states come into play), and that's fine. You can't fault the guy for failing to foresee that he would be the beneficiary of hundreds of millions of dollars in grassroots money, but he should have been more careful about agreeing to forego potential advantages down the stretch.

On the other hand, I'm glad he opted out for 2 reasons. One, the whole problem with candidates not taking public financing is that it then leaves them open to being unduly influenced by big business as opposed to "the people." Obama has circumvented this issue by adopting especially stringent standards on accepting lobbyist money, making his campaign one funded largely by small donors, that is, us, "the people." And why would we want to curtail that?

The other reason is more pragmatic: why cede advantages you gained by perfectly fair means? For the last 20 years Democrats have been swamped in the polls by Republican money, money that was traded for lobbyist influence and that the GOP never once agreed to forego for the sake of a corporate money-free election. The favorite party of MBNA, Blackwater, and Enron would still get its corporate cash and use it to smear Obama in a publicly financed campaign, only in that case it would happen courtesy of PACs and 527s and the RNC, and only a fool would give up the legitimate, grassroots cash that allows him to compete with that. Working class people are cutting him those checks specifically for that purpose.

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