Obama’s Public Funds Dilemma

On the tip of bloggy tongues everywhere is the question of what will happen if McCain takes public funds for the general election. McCain says he will if Obama agrees to do the same. Would Obama follow suit, as he has suggested in the past?

McCain’s campaign has been mentioning Obama’s “pledge” to accept public funds, basically daring him not to keep his word. “If I were raising $35 million a month, I would think that through ” said McCain Campaign Manager Rick Davis. “I think there is more a more likely chance he’d break his pledge than John [would].”  

Now Obama’s people appear to be downplaying the idea. Spokesman Bill Burton describes public funding as an “option,” but refuses to call it a “pledge.” But is it an option he would really turn down?

For Obama, this would be the ultimate test of practicality vs. idealism—and a dangerous one, too. The candidate made a big deal of petitioning the FEC last February for a “truce” that would allow the front-runners of both parties to give back money raised for the general election. The move earned him plenty of coverage , and helped bolster his image as someone committed to cleaning up Washington. Even if his “pledge” wasn’t explicit—if the words “I will accept public funds if my opponent does” never came out of his mouth—his alleged commitment to campaign finance reform is too much a part of his public character to reverse course suddenly.

For one thing, his idealistic fans might turn on him. The Obama luster is bound to get scuffed up at some point, but to have it happen over an obviously controllable issue like campaign finance—as opposed to ancient ties to goons like Tony Rezko—would be especially damning. Plus, McCain would have a field day. Every time the subject of ethics or promise-keeping came up, he would have the public funds cudgel at the ready. McCain’s conservative detractors often cite his campaign finance record as a strike against him. But if it gave him the moral high ground over Obama, they couldn’t help but cheer him on.

It makes sense that Obama’s campaign wouldn’t commit itself to public funding before securing the nomination. And, of course, it would be a major sacrifice to forgo such a huge monetary advantage. But they have to recognize the ammo it would provide—and already is providing—for McCain. It may still be just an “option.” But it’s an option Obama can’t afford not to take.