Barack Obama promised last year that he would “aggressively pursue” a deal with his eventual Republican opponent to take public financing for the election. But then, with the help of some politically savvy dot.com supporters in California, his campaign devised an innovative Internet fund-raising plan that brought in an enormous amount of money – not from the usual fat cats but from some 1.5 million donors whose average contribution was $88. Accepting public financing would shut off that money spigot. So voters learned a lesson: Can Sen. Obama change his mind when it's to his advantage? Yes, he can.
Sen. McCain, who had difficulty deciding whether he wanted to be in or out of the public financing system, probably won't benefit much from Sen. Obama's flip-flop. Voters don't seem concerned about campaign financing, which is one reason well-funded special interest groups wield so much power in politics.
In fact, there's a lot wrong with the public financing system. Bob Hall, a reform leader who has helped bring about public financing of some N.C. campaigns, says the national program doesn't “provide sufficient funds for a candidate to mount a truly competitive campaign across the nation, without relying on unregulated spending by outside groups. Nor does it compensate for the candidate who opts out of the program by providing additional matching money to the opponent who stays in the program. Barack Obama's decision may have been different if the program provided twice the money it now does (that would still be less than $1 per voting-age citizen) and/or awarded matching money to John McCain for every dollar Obama raised above a fixed limit.”
The 2008 contest is likely to be the first $1 billion presidential campaign. Joan Claybrook, president of the reform group Public Citizen, notes, “Most of this money will be coming from the very same wealthy corporations and industry groups that have business pending before the federal government, and they expect favors, access and even jobs in return.”
That may not be true for Sen. Obama. But in politics, as in other fields of human endeavor, to some extent you get what you pay for. Americans should keep a close eye on who's paying for political campaigns.