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The Public Finanacing Flap

So, it appears that Barack Obama and his campaign probably leaned too far forward in the early moments of the campaign in declaring their willingness to accept public financing if nominated to the general. Now, they’re going to have to eat a bit of crow, regardless of where they get the money from. The Washington Post picks up the story:

Getting His Money and Raising It, Too? – washingtonpost.com

The campaign went even further in answers to a questionnaire that the Midwest Democracy Network sent to candidates last September. The survey posed a simple question: “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 replied “Yes.”

OK, so as a supporter of Barack Obama’s who also prides himself on saying what he thinks, even of people he supports, I have to say Barack really fucked this one up good. He’s going to need to pay some sort of price for this, and I’ll get to what that might be in a few paras.

But as a supporter of Clean Money, Clean Elections, you might think I’d feel his not accepting public financing was a betrayal of my ideals, and that is not the case. I’m a dedicated supporter of plans to introduce public campaign financing here in New York State and have even lobbied on the subject with local state representatives. But there are significant differences between the CMCE plan being advocated here in NYS and the public financing system currently in place on the national level.


For a start, the plan in New York is to determine the amount of money needed to stay competitive in each race where CMCE is used. This is done by looking at the last three elections in that district and averaging out the amount of money spent by the winning candidate. That number is used as the initial maximum financing allowed for a candidate, and the candidate is given (as I recall) twenty percent of that amount at the start of the general. Additional funds are given to the candidate as needed up to that originally-determined maximum, but only as their competitor outspends them.Thus, there is an upper limit which is competitive for the race. If both candidates are using Clean Money, that is the hard-and-fast spending cap. But if the CMCE candidate faces a non-public challenger who outspends that cap, the cap can be extended to three times the original as needed. That’s quite the disincentive for a non-public challenger to try to swamp the CMCE candidate.

All of this is to say that the NYS CMCE system being proposed is both highly competitive and aimed at reducing costs. The national public financing system does not take the race into account at all and merely sets a limit of funding which was set years ago and is now a bit of a joke. There’s reason to suspect that a national campaign cannot be run on 50 million dollars at all, even if your competitor also agrees to public financing.

So my feeling is: the Obama camp was out of its mind to have ever suggested it would run on public financing at all. They probably deserve to get the snot knocked out of them – for a little while, at least – for having made such a ridiculous agreement in the first place.

And what will the political heat be for this gaff? My guess is probably not too much, under the circumstances. Had this been an issue when John Edwards was still in the running, he might have been able to capitalize on it. But Hillary Clinton certainly cannot, and John McCain, as much as he’d like to, is bound in too many ways to do much with it.

For one, as he tries desperately to convince Conservatives that he’s the candidate for them, he is stepping on his own feet if he actually takes public campaign money. Conservatives are dead-set against any such thing, and if you’re going to rail against special interests, declare yourself a Conservative, allegedly sleep with a lobbyist. . . and then take public money to run your campaign? Well, that’s not going to win you any friends on the Right. It’s also setting yourself up for a hard fall among the independent voting community, in whom John McCain has placed such faith.

And worse, McCain is even getting himself into hot water with the FEC (ooooh! The scary FEC!) over his public financing two-step. It seems Young John decided to secure a loan by stating that, if he lost the primary, he could simply accept public financing and use that to pay off the loan. Essentially, what he did was use public financing money he didn’t have as collateral for funds he couldn’t otherwise afford to borrow. Nice work.

And in my book – I suspect the FEC is thinking the same – using public financing as collateral is effectively taking the public financing money. You can’t legally provide something you don’t own as collateral, so if the bank accepted it, John McCain needs to accept it.

And for doing us so dirty and pulling such a fast one, he deserves to be hoisted up on his own petard, running a public financed campaign while Obama rides the wave of his popularity.