Obama's Funding 'Flip-Flop' -- Typical Politician?

Obama's decision to skip an earlier pledge to forgo public financing for the general election if his opponent did so will probably allow the Illinois fundraising phenom to outspend John McCain 3-to-1.

Barack Obama's campaign theme is "Change We Can Believe In." For the rest of the election, it might well be "Millions More to Raise." That's in dollars, not people.

Obama's decision to skip an earlier pledge to forgo public financing for the general election if his opponent did so will probably allow the Illinois fundraising phenom to outspend John McCain 3-to-1. But it also raises questions about his keeping commitments, especially when commitments made earnestly and early on turn out to be inconvenient. This sounds like old-style political gamesmanship and calculation, not the message of change Obama had been preaching...

Republican-nominee-designate John McCain has already said he will take $84 million in public financing for the fall campaign. He'll use every penny of it, compared to what might be three times that amount raised by Obama from millions of largely small-dollar donors who can give again because they haven't hit the limit yet.

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Obama's change of heart reflects a change in the situation. When he made the commitment to take public funding if his opponent did, he was a long-shot prospect for the Democratic nomination against Hillary Clinton, and it was long before his private fuindraising success in the primaries. Here's an excellent run-down of the time-line and the statements of both candidates on public financing from the St. Petersburg Times's Politifact fact checker.

The Obama campaign's latest rational (read total spin) for skipping the public system is to claim that McCain has already in effect been spending privately-raised money aimed at the general election (because the GOP nomination battle has been long over). Obama also says the breadth and scope of his fundraising, his ability to draw in large numbers of small-dollar donors, achieves the same spirit and goals of public financing, which was intended to reduce big-dollar special interest influence. The last part of the rationale is a bit of a convenient stretch for skipping public financing -- that he is so popular nationally as to be above its purpose.

McCain will get some limited points attacking Obama for skipping public money. McCain probably has to stick with public dollars. Perhaps that's an admission that McCain could not raise near what Obama can for the general and also a reflection of the hard truth that he doesn't have time to spare to continually fundraise instead of doing real campaigning and meeting voters. That was also one of the original reasons for establishing public financing, by the way.

How much mileage McCain can get out of criticizing Obama on public financing flip-flop is an open question. I'm not sure it will be all that important to all that many voters in the end. But Obama's flip will alllow McCain to say through the rest of the election that Obama remains a question mark. What he says may not be what he does or who he is, etc. We were going to hear that from McCain anyway. The public financing rejection puts another pillar in his argument that Obama may not be the change we need.

Richard Sammon
Senior Associate Editor, The Kiplinger Letter