Friday, June 20, 2008

Public financing (the public's invited)

Sen. Barack Obama has been characterized throughout the campaign as a fundraising maverick, rich as Croesus and happily exploiting the Internet’s viral aspects to create a campaign-donation apparatus that’s revolutionized political fundraising now and for the future.

His decision Thursday to opt out of the campaign public financing system has already drawn sharp-elbowed attacks from his challenger for the presidency, John McCain, and others who condemn what’s been called a flip-flop of a previous Obama position on public financing.

Never mind that what Obama really agreed to was acceptance of such public financing if his Republican challenger agreed to the same. (“If I am the Democratic nominee, I will aggressively pursue an agreement with the Republican nominee to preserve a publicly financed general election." Obama said in a questionnaire from the Midwest Democracy Network, released Nov. 27).

What Team Obama has been building is effectively a new form of public financing — one that gets closer to politics like it should be: something conducted without being underwritten by the public purse.

Rather than lock himself into accepting the prescribed funds available under public campaign financing laws — an amount that couldn’t have anticipated either the popularity of the Obama campaign or the high burn rate of those dollars that’s sure to come, in the wake of his 50-state electoral strategy — Obama has flipped the script on what “public financing” really is.

His basic argument is a compelling one: that through donations made reliably and passionately by supporters, a political campaign is properly animated not by public money but by the public itself. No machine politics. No heavy corporate influence. In Obama's calculation, a campaign justifiably acquires its financial strength, from the primaries through the general election, through the largesse of those who believe in it.

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By opting-out, Obama recognizes the ways campaigns don't respond well to arbitrary limits of the funds that keep them going. Accepting the public financing limit prevents a candidate from making the strategic pivots necessary to pursue a successful campaign. If Team Obama had accepted the limit for the 2008 general election, about $84 million per candidate, it would no doubt be forced to abandon its planned strategy of campaigning in all 50 states. That’s problematic when you’ve run an operation that's built itself on breaking down the divisions of red and blue states.

An attempt to mount a truly national campaign — one that doesn’t concede states to the opponent on the basis of history and assumptions, one that invites the widest dialogue and offers the widest exposure — is a necessarily expensive process. With more and better knowledge of his campaign’s reach now than he had seven or eight months ago, why should Obama commit to walking away from what he knows now, and abide by an unfortunate pledge that would stop him from reaching all the states he proposes to govern? He shouldn't.

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Robert Creamer, a longtime political strategist and writer, gets to the heart of the issue in today’s Huffington Post:

“Our goal shouldn't be to keep money out of politics -- but rather to keep big money out of politics. Public financing is critical to prevent big corporations and the wealthy from continuing their domination of what might otherwise be a truly democratic political system. Public financing should be about preventing plutocracy and facilitating democracy. Political communication, grassroots organization, door to door canvassing, political rallies all cost money -- but they are critical for engaging everyday people in the political process. …

“For decades the Republicans — who are now yelping about Obama's decision — have done everything in their power to oppose public financing of elections. After all, their major constituencies are big corporations and the wealthy,” Creamer observes — and it’s this fact that makes Team Obama’s grassroots approach so powerful.

With its philosophy of a broad base of donors contributing small amounts over time, in manageable and regular increments, the Obama campaign has placed the essence of participatory democracy inside the fundraising machinery that powers American politics. It’s precisely the model of what the phrase “public financing” denotes.

“There will be a whole lot more interest among Republicans in a system of public financing after Obama wallops them in fundraising this fall,” Creamer says.

Barack Obama has seen the future of American political campaign financing, and everyday Americans have a lot to do with it — more than ever before. That’s something to celebrate.

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