National media have echoed presumptive GOP presidential nominee John McCain's criticism of Democratic candidate Barack Obama for failing to promise to participate in the public financing program for the general election--even though McCain's campaign has said it may not participate in the program either.
At issue is whether Obama will participate in the public financing program for the general election. Under that system, each campaign would be limited to spending about $84 million. Several media outlets have criticized Obama for seeming to back away from his apparent promise to use public financing. The New York Times (2/28/08) called it a "test of Mr. Obama's own ability to balance principle and politics." NBC's Tim Russert accused Obama of "waffling" in a February 26 debate. The Associated Press noted (2/20/08) that McCain was trying "to turn a money issue into a character test."
To the media, it was clear who was passing and who was failing that test: McCain was standing firm to his principles while Obama waffled. The Washington Post editorialized (4/14/08) that "going back on his pledge to take public financing if the GOP nominee were to agree to do the same would be an unfortunate step--and one that reflects badly on Mr. Obama." The Post also argued that the "the real test of a candidate is whether he will stick by an announced principle even when that's against his own interest," before concluding that John McCain "agreed way back when" to accept public financing.
This kind of analysis misses key facts. For starters, Obama's supposed "pledge" has always been based on what would happen if he were to win the Democratic nomination. As every political observer must know, this has not yet happened; thus, the discussion over whether Obama has "broken" a promise would seem rather premature.
The origins of the Obama "waffle" are worth examining. In February 2007, the Obama campaign asked the FEC if it could raise funds for the general election but still retain the flexibility to return those donations and opt-in to the public program further down the road. The campaign did not indicate that it would necessarily do so. If the eventual Republican nominee accepted public money, "it would be something we would explore," campaign spokesman Bill Burton told Politico (2/27/07). The campaign would go on to say on several different occasions that if Obama were the nominee, they would "aggressively pursue an agreement with the Republican nominee to preserve a publicly financed general election."
In an op-ed for USA Today (2/20/08), Obama explained that such an agreement would have to be carefully negotiated to produce
Somehow, in the minds of much of the press corps, this has come to be derided as evidence of Obama's lack of commitment. When Obama explained to NBC's Tim Russert (2/26/08) that what he had agreed to do was, if he won the nomination, to "sit down with John McCain and make sure that we have a system that is fair for both sides," Russert retorted: "So you may opt out of public financing. You may break your word. "
Actually, it is not at all clear that John McCain is keeping his word on this issue, despite his frequent demands that Obama do so. As the New York Times reported on April 10:
"We could sit down in July or August and say, 'Hey, we're raising a lot of money and maybe we should forgo it,'" said Charles Black, a senior McCain adviser. "We don’t have enough data."
It is hard to tell how that McCain position differs from Obama's; nonetheless, McCain has managed--with great help from the national media--to put the onus on Barack Obama to keep a "promise." On the Washington Post's campaign blog (4/11/08), Dan Balz reported that McCain was keeping his options open about accepting public financing:
Asked under what conditions he might not take the federal funds, he replied, "A little straight talk: How it benefits us. How it's most beneficial to us."
The main difference is thus a tactical one: McCain is using the issue as a political weapon against his probable opponent. As the April 10 Times report noted, "McCain advisers have indicated that they will seek to exploit the issue if Mr. Obama indeed opts out of public financing for the general election." The Times also pointed out, as have a few other outlets, that McCain has been asking donors "to contribute to a special fund that would not be subject to the public financing limits."
McCain can successfully exploit this issue because the press seems much less interested in his own fundraising practices. The Washington Post recently devoted a whole story (4/11/08) to Obama's "bundlers," the fundraisers who use their own connections to gather donations for a political candidate. The Post reported that 79 Obama bundlers have raised at least $200,000.
While that's quite a bit of money--in the neighborhood of $16 million--some perspective is warranted. The Post's recent editorial called this a "good chunk of Mr. Obama's overflowing treasury," which is hard to fathom given that his total fundraising so far is about $240 million.
A more important question is who's doing the bundling for all of the candidates. Public Citizen's White House for Sale project counts Obama having 361 bundlers, 14 of whom are lobbyists. John McCain, on the other hand, has 473 bundlers, 66 of them lobbyists. Yet somehow, at least to the press, it is Obama who must answer the tough questions. Another Washington Post editorial (2/17/08) critical of Obama argued that:
Somehow the candidate who would seem more "indebted" to "big bundlers" is the one who gets a pass from the Post.
While media attention remains bizarrely fixed on a future decision Obama will make about how best to finance his campaign, little is said about McCain's current campaign finance controversies. Democratic Party officials recent filed a lawsuit alleging that McCain used the public financing money available to him during the Republican primaries to help secure a private loan for his campaign, only to pull out of this arrangement when his own fundraising fortunes changed (Talking Points Memo, 4/14/08).
The matter would normally be settled by the Federal Election Commission (FEC), but because of a political fight over appointments, that agency does not have a quorum. So while McCain announced weeks ago that he was no longer going to participate in the public financing program for the primary season, the FEC has not been able to rule on his decision to accept this withdrawal. In the meantime, McCain's campaign has exceeded the spending limit for primary contests under the public financing rules he has tried to withdraw from (Washington Post, 3/22/08).
But somehow this controversy is, in the words of the New York Times (2/28/08), "more sensitive for Mr. Obama." That is true only because John McCain has declared it so--and the media have followed his lead.