It was likely that Barack Obama genuinely believed that he would take or have to take public financing. But when the primary was unexpectedly extended, the Obama team saw their money raising potential – and more they knew they were going to need fist fulls of it – if they were going to have any real chance of defeating the Republican election machine. With Al Gore’s loss in 2000 and Kerry’s Swift-Boating back in 2004 – they concluded that public financing would place serious limits on their ability to act. And they were right. John McCain promised to run an honorable campaign, and without adequate finance – Obama would likely not be President-elect – as was McCain’s plan. It is doubtful that in 2012 the Republicans will allow themselves to be hamstrung by public financing either. They might be moaning right now – but they are also learning. It was just a little TKO!
President-elect Barack Obama and vanquished rival John McCain talked Monday about reforming parts of the political process, but they skipped a good governance issue of mutual interest over which they sparred bitterly during their campaign: fixing the public financing system.
Obama this summer said he was “firmly committed to reforming the system as president,” even as his reversal of a pledge to participate in it drew fire from McCain, editorial boards and campaign finance reform advocates, all of whom accused Obama of virtually killing the system.
Stephanie Cutter, a spokeswoman for the Obama transition team, said Obama and McCain “share a common belief that the system needs to be reformed,” but she said “they didn’t speak about it today.”
Instead, a different Obama aide said, the discussion focused on “a common sense of reform being needed” on government spending, earmarks, military procurement, corporate welfare, climate change, immigration and Guantanamo Bay, among other areas.
McCain’s Senate and campaign staffers did not respond to questions about why campaign finance reform wasn’t discussed, but it clearly is a sore point for the Arizona senator and his team. They believe Obama was never held to account for his public funding flip-flop, which put him at a huge cash advantage over McCain in the final months of the campaign.
McCain did participate in the system, which limits candidates to spending only the amount of a taxpayer-funded grant. This year, the grant was $84 million for the general election. Meanwhile, Obama’s historic fundraising effort pulled in well more than $640 million for the primary and the general, allowing him to dramatically outspend McCain on ads, offices and get-out-the-vote efforts.
In the closing weeks of the campaign, McCain blamed Obama’s rejection of public financing and his prolific fundraising for “completely breaking whatever idea we had after Watergate to keep the costs and spending on campaigns under control.”
McCain told Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace in October that Obama had “unleashed now in presidential campaigns a new flood of spending that will then cause a scandal and then we will fix it again. But Sen. Obama has broken it. And he broke his word to me and the American people when he signed a piece of paper, when he was a long-shot candidate, that he would take public financing if I would.”
That was a reference to a questionnaire Obama submitted last year to a coalition of non-profit groups advocating a reduction in the role of money in politics.
The questionnaire, from the Midwest Democracy Network, asked, “If you are nominated for president in 2008 and your major opponents agree to forgo private funding in the general election campaign, will you participate in the presidential public financing system?”
Obama answered “Yes.” Then, in the space provided for comments, he wrote: “I have been a long-time advocate for public financing of campaigns combined with free television and radio time as a way to reduce the influence of moneyed special interests.”
In response to another question, Obama wrote that he supported strengthening the public financing system, which was enacted after Watergate to minimize the corrupting influence of money on electoral politics.
Obama’s policy advisors still consider it a priority to revamp the public financing system, according to David Donnelly, director of Campaign Money Watch, a non-profit group that pushes for stricter campaign finance rules.
Obama’s “priorities Nos. 1, 2 and 3 are the economy, but I don’t think his commitment to (public financing) has changed,” said Donnelly. Still, Donnelly added “it’s important for him to take up this issue and show that he’s willing to follow through on his commitment.”
If Obama does champion campaign finance reform from the White House, McCain could be a key ally in Senate, predicted Donnelly, whose group during the campaign accused McCain of backing away from the issue.
McCain’s seminal legislative accomplishment was a 2002 overhaul of the campaign finance system, and for years before and after that, he sponsored legislation to revamp the public funding system. But Donnelly and other McCain critics accused McCain of shying away from campaign reform as he positioned himself for his 2008 campaign for the GOP presidential nomination.