Illinois Sen. Barack Obama yesterday opened the way for the freest-spending general-election campaign in presidential history with a controversial but widely anticipated decision to opt out of the federal financing system.
The choice to rely on the fundraising juggernaut he built through the primaries all but assures the Democratic standard-bearer of a major financial advantage over Arizona Sen. John McCain, one that will give him the tactical freedom to expand the number of states he can realistically contest in the fall campaign
In light of previous statements that he planned to participate in the taxpayer-funded system, however, Mr. Obama opened himself to criticism that he had allowed pragmatic political considerations to subvert a centerpiece of post-Watergate efforts to curb the influence of money in politics.
Mr. Obama announced his plan in a video e-mailed to supporters yesterday. In it, the Illinois senator said his decision was difficult, "especially because I support a robust system of public financing of elections. But the public financing of presidential elections as it exists today is broken, and we face opponents who've become masters at gaming this broken system."
His rival painted the decision as a broken promise. "This election is about a lot of things. It's also about trust," Mr. McCain told The Associated Press. "It's about keeping your word."
Early in the primary season, both Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain had said they would accept public funding and accompanying spending limits in the general election, so long as the other candidate did so as well. As the Obama campaign's unprecedented fund-raising prowess emerged, however, the Democrat edged away from his previous statements.
Last fall, he said in answer to a candidate questionnaire, "If I am the Democratic nominee, I will aggressively pursue an agreement with the Republican nominee to preserve a publicly financed general election."
By mid-spring, he was raising the concern of his need to counter potential spending by third-party groups, much like the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth who had dogged Democratic Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry's unsuccessful 2004 presidential campaign.
"I don't want Democrats to heavily disarm if we can't create a system [to prevent] outside parties and third parties running Swift Boat ads, outspending the Democratic nominee," he said in an interview prior to the Pennsylvania primary. "What I said very early on is that I would sit down with my Republican opponent and try to find a way to preserve public financing."
A point of contention in the campaigns' debate yesterday was how genuine an attempt the Obama forces had made to secure such an agreement. The Obama campaign suggested that a meeting earlier this month between attorneys for Mr. McCain and Mr. Obama had made it obvious that such discussions would be fruitless.
But in a conference call with reporters, Trevor Potter, an attorney for the Republican, contended that was an inaccurate characterization of the meeting. "There was no aggressive pursuit of negotiations with the McCain campaign. There was no pursuit of negotiations, period," he insisted.
Renewing a long-standing criticism, the Obama campaign contended that Mr. McCain's hands were not clean on campaign spending issues, noting that he had once indicated that he would accept federal matching funds and spending limits during the primaries, only to back out of that stance later.
Mr. Potter responded that the McCain campaign had said all along that the possibility of participating in the federal public-funding system for the primaries was only an option, not a commitment by the campaign.
Democratic critics have pointed to the Federal Election Commission contention that Mr. McCain should have sought its permission to withdraw from the primary campaign public-funding system, a position Mr. McCain's lawyers have rejected.
In addition to predictable brickbats from Republicans, Mr. Obama's move drew criticism from several advocates for campaign reform.
Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, said his group, which is dedicated to fighting the influence of money in politics, was disappointed with the action. "We had hoped and expected that Senator Obama would stick with the public pledge that he made," Mr. Wertheimer said in a statement. "We do not agree with Senator Obama's rationale for opting out of the system. Senator Obama knew the circumstances surrounding the presidential general election when he made his public pledge to use the [federal financing] system."
"This decision was a mistake," said Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., who has worked on campaign finance issues with both presidential candidates, according to the Associated Press.
While a critic of the decision, Michael Franc, the conservative Heritage Foundation's vice president of governmental affairs, said he did not think it posed much political risk for Mr. Obama. "The only people who are upset with Obama are the type who will vote for Obama [anyway] -- the public-funding advocates," he said. "Realistically, I don't expect there to be any penalty at all."
"This is a very astute business judgment by the Obama campaign," Mr. Franc said. "What it points to -- no matter who is running for office -- if given a choice, the candidate will always opt for the route that leads to more money. ... Pragmatic considerations trump any of the ideological ones."
In the wake of the Obama announcement, Mr. McCain said he will still take the federal funding.
Whether or not that is a political virtue, it is one rooted in the reality that his campaign has not demonstrated the phenomenal fund-raising ability the Democrat has.
For a generation, the ability to raise big money from small donors was an unrivaled strength of Republican candidates. Building on the possibilities demonstrated in the 2004 campaign by Democratic former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, now his party's national chairman, the Obama campaign has pulled that contributions pendulum to the other side, showing an unprecedented ability to capitalize on an Internet-driven donor base.
After he is officially nominated at the Republican convention, Mr. McCain will receive roughly $85 million from the FEC for the final two months of the campaign. He'll benefit as well from spending by the Republican National Committee and other sources. But analysts don't see any possibility of his spending coming close to Mr. Obama's.
"He'll be in a position to outspend [McCain] probably 2 to 1," said Colby College scholar Anthony J. Corrado, an expert on political financing. "He's going to be able to expand the electoral map [and] place staff and resources in a lot of states that haven't seen much activity in the last few elections."
And, anticipating the final weeks of the campaign, Mr. Corrado suggested that the Obama campaign, freed of spending limits, will be spared the agonizing political triage that forces campaigns to make 11th-hour choices among states as targets for its scarce resources.
"You're not going to have the kinds of trade-offs you've seen in the past," Mr. Corrado said. "In 2000, when they came down to the last week of the campaign, [former Vice President Al] Gore ended up going off TV in Ohio so he could match Bush's spending in Florida. ... This gives Obama a real freedom. To the extent they can expand the electoral map, that causes McCain to stretch scarce resources."
"It revises the campaign model, so that it's no longer a zero-sum game," said Mr. Franc. "[Obama] can defend his vulnerable territory and go after McCain as well."
Post-Gazette politics editor James O'Toole can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1562.