Obama’s Funding Decision Won’t Have Long-Term Impact

Posted June 23, 2008 at 4:24pm

Some people think Illinois Democratic Sen. Barack Obama’s decision to break his promise not to accept public funding for his presidential campaign is both morally wrong and politically risky. However, those same people — who, like myself, believe we need to overhaul the campaign finance system — would also agree that it was a smart decision.

[IMGCAP(1)]In finding a path to secure the 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency, Obama decided to play chess instead of the traditional game of checkers.

Obama will continue to take hits for his decision from the media and the “good- government goo-goos,” of which I am a card-carrying member. But these folks should also remember that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) does not come into this debate with clean hands, his reputation for campaign finance reform notwithstanding.

Though not unexpected, Obama’s decision is disappointing. The purpose of the presidential public financing system, to which fewer than one out of 10 taxpayers contribute, is to reduce a campaign’s reliance on big money and help even the playing field. While still relevant and important, the system, as Obama pointed out, is badly broken.

By rejecting public funds, Obama, declare the pundits, has brought great damage to his political brand as an outsider. Indeed, the Senator’s decision could undermine the message that is the soul and substance of his unconventional campaign: that Obama is a reformer who will change the way Washington operates. “The way Washington operates” is generally understood as a euphemism for the ability of fat-cat donors to buy elected officials who will do their bidding, leaving most Americans feeling irrelevant and powerless.

Obama will be the first presidential candidate since the system was created in the 1970s to reject public funding in the general election. But what does it really mean? How will his taking the federal government’s check for $84.1 million and stamping it “Return to Sender” affect the race?

In the short run, he’ll suffer the criticism of good people like Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) and others who know the system is deeply flawed. In the long run, it won’t matter much at all. By the time people start casting their ballots, the majority will have moved on to more important matters, like skyrocketing food and gas bills. Come November, they’ll judge a candidate by the issues he supports rather than the money he’s raised. Heck, they may even thank Obama for allowing the government to spend the $84.1 million of their tax dollars on something really important, such as local public schools and our crumbling infrastructure.

As an avid supporter of campaign finance reform and cleaning up the political system, Obama deserves credit for pushing to fix a broken system. He’s one of the lead co-sponsors of a bill that would fix the campaign finance system, raise the unrealistically low spending caps, repair the funding mechanism and much more. He has proved his bona fides in other important ways, including leading lobbying reform and refusing contributions from lobbyists and political action committees — including funds made payable to the Democratic National Committee, which he now effectively controls.

On the other hand, McCain shrugged off the reformer mantle the second he started his presidential race. His opposition to the Bush tax cuts? Gone. His opposition to offshore oil drilling? Gone. His belief in campaign finance reform? Gone.

In early February, with the conclusion of the Super Tuesday contests and the withdrawal two days later of Mitt Romney, McCain dropped out of the primary matching fund system. Had his fundraising apparatus proved to be robust rather than anemic, he would have blown off the caps, too. Meanwhile, this once-upon-a-time scourge of lobbyists now has a campaign that’s owned and operated by them, and he happily accepts their millions in contributions.

Candidates make decisions that maximize their chances of winning. McCain wants Obama to accept public funding and the caps that go with it because he’s getting his doors blown off by the Obama fundraising juggernaut. If McCain were as successful in inspiring hundreds of thousands of everyday Americans to donate $25, $50 or $100 to his campaign, he’d be happily blowing the caps himself. (In what must be a cruel irony for McCain, Obama owes the prominence of small donors to the McCain-Feingold bill, which forbade larger, easier-to-get soft-money contributions.)

This debate won’t last long, though the effect of Obama’s pragmatic decision will extend all the way to Election Day. Capitalizing on his fundraising advantage over McCain, Obama is planning extensive advertising and voter turnout drives that will help all Democratic candidates and force Republicans to compete in states they have not had to defend in decades. As Democratic enrollment levels soar and Democratic candidates on the ballot receive welcomed air support, McCain and Republican candidates will have to spend time and money in states once taken for granted.

However it all ends up, when this election is over and the smoke clears, whoever wins should make fixing the presidential public funding system one of his first official acts.

Donna Brazile, the campaign manager for Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore in 2000, runs her own grass-roots political consulting firm.