Obama Flip-Flops on Public Campaign Funds: Will McCain be Hoist on His Own Petard?

Barack Obama’s decision not to take public funds for the general election was a total reversal, breaking a promise made when he thought he couldn’t succeed without it and that no Republican could succeed with it. Republican candidate John McCain — known for his dedication to campaign finance “reform” is sticking with public financing, to his likely disadvantage. Obama has once again proven himself to be a rank hypocrite in favor of “reform” only when it will not hurt his election prospects.

In 2007, Obama was a major sponsor of the congressional ethics bill passed by Congress. He claimed the mantle of a “reformer” and was constantly in the press talking about how this bill would help clean up our political process. Of course, Obama ensured that the Federal Election Commission, the federal agency that enforces the campaign finance laws, would be shut down for most of this year’s presidential election campaign. Obama placed an unprecedented hold on a Republican nominee to the Federal Election Commission (me as a matter of fact), breaking the tradition of each party accepting the opposing party’s choices, which directly caused the six-month shutdown of the agency for the first time in its 32-year history.

Now the self-styled reformer will not take public funds because the system is “broken” and Republicans have “become masters at gaming this broken system.” John McCain will not “stop the smears and attacks from his allies running so-called 527 groups, who will spend millions and millions of dollars in unlimited donations.” He also claims that McCain’s campaign and the Republican National Committee “are fueled by contributions from Washington lobbyists and special interest PACs.”

These claims are ludicrous. Contrary to popular notions, the fundraising history of Democrats and Republicans show that it is actually Republicans who have long raised more money from individual contributors than the Democrats (and averaged much lower individual contribution amounts). In the latest FEC report, Republican Party committees reported receiving 86% of their receipts from individual contributors during the two-year presidential election cycle; Democrats received only 77% of their total from individuals.

The FEC also reported that PAC’s contributed $30.2 million to Republican Party committees at the same time that they contributed $49.4 million to Democratic Party committees. The Center for Responsive Politics reports that the top PAC contributors to candidates in 2007-2008 were the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the Operating Engineers Union, and the National Association of Realtors. These PACs gave 98%, 86%, and 59%, respectively, of their funds to Democratic candidates. So if there is any party being fueled by lobbyists and PACs, it is the Democrats, not the Republicans.

Obama also cites conservative 527 organizations as a reason to get out of the system. However, liberal 527s are substantially out-raising conservatives in this election cycle the same way that Obama is out-raising McCain. So the person who is going to be damaged the most by 527s is John McCain, not Barack Obama. is already out with an advertisement cosponsored with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Union (which gives 99% of its money to Democrats) attacking John McCain on the Iraq war.

And contrary to the spin of the Obama campaign, John McCain has no control over independent 527s that participate in our political process. If McCain’s campaign coordinates with any of these independent organizations, then their activity will be captured by the campaign finance law — and all of the applicable restrictions on donations and spending by his campaign will apply. However, if they are truly independent, then McCain has no say so whatsoever over their activities — activities protected by the First Amendment — and it is a completely bogus excuse for Obama to not accept public funding.

Even if there is no coordination with a campaign, 527s are still covered by FEC regulations if the FEC determines that their major activity is to influence a federal election. If McCain can exercise control over these conservative organizations as Obama claims, why hasn’t Obama forced to quit running their anti-McCain ad and stop all of their other efforts to help Obama’s candidacy?

Obama is a smart lawyer and has one of the best legal teams in the campaign finance arena advising his campaign, so Obama knows all this. If there is anyone who is employing “masters” at gaming the system, it is the Obama campaign. This is really a matter of pure Chicago-style politics and big money.

Obama knows McCain is having trouble raising money and is going to have to take public funding, which will limit McCain’s spending in September and October to only $84.1 million. Obama on the other hand, has been breaking fund raising records, garnering almost $100 million in February and March alone. He probably expects to raise at least twice the amount McCain will have in public funds. Since more than 80% of the funds raised in a presidential campaign go to pay for broadcast and radio advertising, Obama will be able to blanket the nation with political advertising, swamping McCain’s similar efforts and potentially dooming his campaign.

McCain is stuck in the public financing system, broken or not. If McCain’s fundraising improves so that he would also like to opt out of public funding, he will be attacked for his supposed hypocrisy, since he has made himself the king of campaign finance reform to the point that his very name is almost synonymous with it.

It was one thing to opt out of public funding for the primary elections — everyone agrees that the amount of public funding available for the primaries is not sufficient to run a national campaign in 50 states. But the $84.1 million available for the general election is sufficient to run a national campaign for two months, and McCain would have a very difficult time explaining any decision to opt out as anything other than a betrayal of his long-held views on campaign finance reform.

When being a campaign finance “reformer” gained Obama admiring stories in the fawning media, Obama was all for it. But when it hurts his election chances, Obama has changed his position so he can continue to raise huge amounts of private donations. He claims that his large number of contributors amounts to a “parallel public financing system.” That is actually quite an amusing claim. I guess it means that if you have only a couple of hundred thousand contributors, you are engaged in the horribly corrupt business of raising private donations. But once you get to 1.5 million contributors then you are transformed to clean and uncorrupt “public” financing.

The fact that Obama does not want to admit that the real reason he is refusing public funding is simply because he has the proven ability to out raise his opponent says far more about his character than it does about the campaign finance system. Since Barack Obama spent 20 years listening to black liberation theology every Sunday, it is poetic justice that he has proven the truth of what Stokely Carmichael, once said — what a liberal really wants is to bring about change which will not in any way endanger his position.