The Calculator

Barack Obama’s decision yesterday not to take public financing came as a surprise to no one. But it has still earned him scorn. The New York Times editorial page, a longtime proponent of public financing, tweaked him for renouncing the system. The AP declared that Obama “chose winning over his word.” David Brooks mocked the “two Obamas”—one pointy-headed idealist, one conniving pragmatist.

Let’s side the question of whether Obama went back on his word— he did —and focus on whether it tarnishes him or not. No doubt Obama has handed John McCain a big weapon. But it’s not a cudgel—it’s a nerf bat. McCain can pummel Obama as much as he likes, and it won’t hurt him. Here’s why:

No one knows the difference. Barack Obama drew sneers when he called his fundraising operation a “parallel public financing system.” There’s a huge difference between the taxpayer-funded system that relies on $3 nonpartisan donations and caps campaign spending, and Barack Obama’s seemingly unlimited Internet-driven cash supply. But the sneers came from people who know what public financing is. As John McCain has himself admitted, not many voters base their decision on campaign-finance issues.

No one would honestly have done any differently. Who expected Barack Obama to set up the most effective fundraising operation in history and then throw it away? As First Read points out , there’s a word for that: dumb . However you look at it, being able to outspend your opponent 3-to-1 is more valuable than having the moral high ground on an issue few voters care about—even if you’ve devoted much of your career to it.

Democrats want to win. There’s always a push-pull dynamic when it comes to idealism and pragmatism, but Democrats have swung heavily toward pragmatism of late. Losses in 2000 and 2004 have soured them on moral victories. If Obama had taken the $85 million and proceeded to lose the general election, the rage among Democrats would eclipse the current fervor. He would just be another high-horse loser who didn’t know how to play the game.

It reassures Democrats who thought Obama is naive. One subtext of Hillary Clinton’s pugilistic campaign strategy is that she would take the same warrior’s approach to the presidency. “I’m in this race to fight for you …” she told Pennsylvania voters. “You know you can count on me to stand up strong for you every single day in the White House.” Likewise, this shows Obama can perform a simple cost-benefit analysis. No one wants a president who isn’t a little calculating. It’s the weighing of ideals against necessity that makes a leader. Of course, one can also argue that sacrificing ideals makes true leadership impossible.

None of this is to say Obama shouldn’t be criticized for his decision. (Nor is it the first time Obama has made a flagrantly calculated choice.) The point is, he expected criticism, but thought forgoing public funds was worth it anyway.