Jul 3 2008

Two Standards on Public Financing

Democratic candidate Barack Obama’s June 19 announcement that he would not accept public financing in the presidential race prompted a media furor. Obama’s “flip-flop” (Hardball, 6/20/08; USA Today, 6/25/08) was used by many corporate journalists as an opportunity to undermine Obama’s reformist image.

“Obama’s money move lifts expediency over principle,” a USA Today (6/20/08) headline declared. The Associated Press‘s Liz Sidoti (6/19/08), in an article headlined “Barack Obama Chose Winning Over His Word,” wrote that “the first-term Illinois senator tarnished his carefully honed image as a different kind of politician – one who means what he says and says what he means – while undercutting his call for a new kind of politics.”

“It was a flip flop of epic proportions,” proclaimed Mark Shields on PBS‘s NewsHour (6/20/08). Scott Simon, host of NPR’s Weekend Edition Saturday, charged (6/21/08):

Senator Obama’s reversal raises fair questions about the sincerity of his campaign promises and even about the decency of spending so much money…at a time when thousands of Americans are losing their homes and the price of food is becoming difficult to afford.

David Broder reiterated this sentiment, affirming (Washington Post, 6/26/08) that Obama “was rightly criticized for rigging the system in his favor.”

Despite the media outrage over his “broken promise” (Washington Post, 6/20/08), Obama’s stance on public financing has actually been much more qualified; he pledged in a 2007 questionnaire only to “aggressively pursue an agreement with the Republican nominee to preserve a publicly financed general election” (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 2/18/08). Similarly, Obama stated at a February news conference (New York Times, 2/15/08): “If I am the nominee, I will make sure our people talk to John McCain’s people to find out if we are willing to abide by the same rules and regulations with respect to the general election going forward.”

As recently as April, Obama told Fox News that (4/27/08):

I have promised that I will sit down with John McCain and talk about can we preserve a public system as long as we are taking into account third-party independent expenditures, because what I don’t intend to do … is to allow huge amounts of money to be spent by the RNC, the Republican National Committee, or by organizations like the Swift Boat organization and just stand there.

Media have long gotten Obama’s position on public financing wrong. “Obama has pledged to take public financing for the general election if he is the Democratic nominee and his Republican opponent will do the same,” the Washington Post reported last year (8/22/07). Similar misapprehensions were expressed in the Toronto Star (3/4/07), New York Times(4/5/07), Orlando Sentinel (4/10/07) and Philadelphia Inquirer (4/17/07), among others.

Obama justified his decision in a video posted on his website, expressing concern about a system which “as it exists today is broken” and “opponents who have become masters at gaming this broken system.” In particular, he referred to his belief that during the presidential race, John McCain will benefit from 527s – independent organizations that run negative ad campaigns, such as the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, who launched a smear campaign against Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry in 2004. It was a justification most mainstream media dismissed. A Washington Post (6/20/08) editorial (which did recognize that Obama’s “earlier pledge” was “to ‘aggressively pursue’ an agreement with the Republican nominee to accept public financing”) scorned Obama’s “effort to cloak his broken promise in the smug mantle of selfless dedication to the public good.”

How “aggressively” Obama pursued an agreement with the McCain camp is a legitimate question. Jake Tapper’s blog on ABCNews.com (Political Punch, 6/19/08) reported:

Obama campaign counsel Bob Bauer met with McCain campaign counsel Trevor Potter and, according to Obama spox Bill Burton, Potter “immediately made it clear there was no basis for further discussion,” that they weren’t interested in any sort of agreement. “McCain and the RNC had spent months raising and spending money for the general election, and their basic attitude was ‘You’ll catch up,'” Burton says, suggesting that the Republicans were also turning a blind eye to the activities of 527s.

Tapper also reported the Republican contention that Obama did not “try to negotiate at all with the McCain campaign.” The thrust of the piece appeared to take McCain’s side, as it was headlined, “Obama to Break Promise, Opt Out of Public Financing for General Election.”

While Obama has been thus disparaged for his “flip-flop,” the media have largely ignored McCain’s reversal on the same issue–a reversal which may have actually been illegal. Early in his campaign, McCain pledged to accept public financing for the primary elections, but on February 6 he reversed his decision. According to the Washington Post (2/16/08), in November McCain took out a $3 million loan, using his forthcoming public money as collateral.

Under Federal Elections Commission (FEC) regulations, the Post reported, a candidate who uses the promise of public funds as collateral is legally bound to stay within the public financing system. On February 25, the Democratic National Committee filed an FEC complaint against McCain, charging him with violating spending limits (Politico, 2/24/08; Media Matters, 6/26/08)–a move that attracted minimal media interest.

Media Matters (6/26/08) noted that outlets including the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News, Fox NewsSpecial Report and CNN have omitted mention of McCain’s loan when quoting his criticism of Obama’s “flip-flop”:

This is a big deal. It’s a big deal. He has completely reversed himself and gone back not on his word to me, but the commitment that he made to the American people. That’s disturbing.

While most mainstream media have paid little attention to McCain’s turn-around on public financing in the primaries, more coverage has been given to his “flip-flops” on offshore oil drilling and Bush’s tax cuts. But while Obama’s campaign finance decision was pronounced “emblematic of his uncanny ability to renege on promises, brush off transgressions as if they were unimportant, and prevaricate with an ease that inspires marvel” (USNews.com, 6/20/08), McCain’s “flip-flops” are frequently explained away, or even viewed as evidence of his moral character. The Miami Herald (7/2/08) argued:

John McCain and Barack Obama have been accused of flip-flops recently. However, there is a significant difference: McCain changed his position on drilling off our coasts in order to make a difference in our dependence on foreign oil and as an extra safeguard for our nation. Obama changed his stance and rejected public funding for his presidential campaign to benefit himself.

Contrasting Obama on public finance with McCain on offshore drilling, ABC‘s Sam Donaldson declared (This Week, 6/22/08):

There’s a difference there with John McCain. He can say, circumstances have changed. I mean, if hanging fixes the mind, try $5, $6, $7 a gallon gasoline to fix the mind. And he can say yes, but today we have to do something different. So he flip-flopped on energy but he can say that.

Never mind that offshore drilling will have at best a minimal effect on gas prices (Beat the Press, 6/19/08)–or that Obama can plausibly claim that “circumstances have changed” when his opponent reneged on a signed commitment to accept public financing.

Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen (6/24/08) claimed to see evidence of virtue in McCain’s lengthy record of policy reversals:

Here is the difference between McCain and Obama — and Obama had better pay attention. McCain is a known commodity. It’s not just that he’s been around a long time and staked out positions antithetical to those of his Republican base. It’s also — and more important — that we know his bottom line. As his North Vietnamese captors found out, there is only so far he will go, and then his pride or his sense of honor takes over. This — not just his candor and nonstop verbosity on the Straight Talk Express — is what commends him to so many journalists.

U.S. News & World Report‘s Gloria Borger (7/7/08), on the other hand, seemed to excuse McCain’s shifts not based on a core consistency but on an essential inconsistency:

In a way, McCain may have less to lose because the public already sees him as unpredictable. So when he flips his positions to conform with GOP orthodoxy on tax cuts (he now supports) and immigration (build the fence first), it doesn’t seem so odd that he then tacks to the middle on global warming or panders to frustrated motorists on offshore drilling. It’s part of the “don’t pigeonhole me” trademark, which has its appeal to independent voters. McCain’s inconsistency fits the brand, so voters may forgive him.

Voters may or may not forgive him, but it’s clear that McCain’s cheering section in the corporate media already has.

See the most recent issue of Extra!: The Press Corps’ Unshakeable Crush on McCain: Some Straight Talk About the Media’s Favorite ‘Maverick’ by Peter Hart (5-6/08).