Last week Senator Barack Obama announced that he is opting out of the public financing system and spending limits and instead relying on private donations. He gave a litany of phony reasons and mischaracterizations of the financial picture on both sides. In a video to his supporters and the rest of world, Obama said:
"It’s not an easy decision, and 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. John McCain’s campaign and the Republican National Committee are fueled by contributions from Washington lobbyists and special interest PACs. And we’ve already seen that he’s not going to stop the smears and attacks from his allies running so-called 527 groups, who will spend millions and millions of dollars in unlimited donations."
Unfortunately, that fuel won’t get Republicans very far. OpenSecrets.org notes that the Republican National Committee actually trailed the Democratic National Committee in PAC money for the 2004 presidential campaign. The Democrats took in 10% of their total from PACs, while Republicans took in 1%. Obama has pledged not to accept PAC or lobbyist money, a pledge that is more smoke than substance.
According to OpenSecrets, “For mega-fundraiser Obama, eschewing PAC and lobbyist money has been a politically smart policy but hasn’t entailed a significant financial hit. PAC contributions typically amount to only 1 percent of the giving in a presidential campaign, and lobbyists aren’t as generous or numerous as, say, lawyers or Wall Street executives or even college professors.”
On the issue of 527s in this election, it’s unlikely that they’ll have the same impact as they did during the 2004 campaign. McCain himself said 527s “are distorting the entire political process and they need to be outlawed.” Politico’s Jonathan Martin notes that the conservative organizations that had an impact on the last election — Freedom’s Watch, Progress for America, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth — are now defunct or sitting this race out. Martin writes, “Obama’s alarmist prophecy — a bit of typical campaign rhetoric meant to scare his own donors into reaching for their credit cards — is wildly at odds with the flatlined state of conservative third-party efforts.”
On the far-left, MoveOn.org will labor on through November spending more than $35 million despite dumping their 527 entity. Their website states “Obama locked up the nomination. Now he needs our help to win.”
On several occasions during the primary season, Obama said he would “aggressively pursue” a public financing system if the Republican candidate also agreed to do so. In his 2006 book, "The Audacity of Hope," Obama wrote of the importance of embracing the changes of a publicly financed campaign system. “But none of these changes can happen of their own accord,” he wrote, “Each would require a change in attitude among those in power… Each would require from men and women a willingness to risk what they already have.”
Gambling away the Obama campaign’s nearly $300 million raised is a big risk. A change in action was made based on what benefited him, not on “reforming a broken system.” In short, joining the public financing system is change Obama can’t afford.
Regarding his small-dollar donor base, Obama said they “will have as much access and influence over the course of our campaign” as that “traditionally reserved for the wealthy and the powerful.” This week on “Meet the Press,” Sen. Joe Biden explained that Obama didn’t want to be beholden to large donors. Biden touted Obama’s 1.5 million donors, many of whom have given $200 or less, and scoffed at any of those donors’ influence over Obama. “How much influence do [small donors] have on him?” asked Biden. Do you hear that Obama donors? Biden says you have no influence.
The notion that the Obama campaign is bought and paid for by small donors is a canard. In fact, the number of large donations to both Obama and McCain’s campaigns has increased since the 2004 election. The Washington Post’s Jay Mandle wrote, “[F]or most of his campaign, big donors have been Obama’s mainstay. Employees of investment bank Goldman Sachs, for example, have contributed more than $570,000 to his campaign.” Mandle also notes that those considered “small dollar donors” still tend to be upper middle class and not the “working-class families” touted by the campaign.
In "The Audacity of Hope," Obama wrote that during his Senate campaign, wealthy donors became increasingly sympathetic to his cause. In July of 2003, the Chicago Defender reported his successes in “Fund-raising Gives Obama Momentum.” It’s unlikely that Obama thought this well of support would dry up when he entered the presidential race. The question then becomes did Obama go back on his promise or make a promise that he had no intention of keeping?
Despite Obama’s altruistic rhetoric and phony reasons for opting out of the public financing system, the truth is that it was only a promise he was willing to keep if it gave him an edge in the campaign. Since McCain’s fundraising hasn’t come close to matching Obama’s, McCain was certainly willing to participate in the public system. If Obama did in fact plan to participate, why continue collecting from donors who, by his account, are working-class? Surely that money could be more useful to their families. The rest of the country may be facing tough economic times, but it’s an economic boom in Obamaland.