Posted by: mutantpoodle | March 3, 2008

That’s not the money you should worry about…

With apologies to Digby, the LA Times is busy clutching its pearls in horror that both John McCain and Barack Obama may opt out of federal campaign financing. Pointing out that McCain and Obama seemed to agree to public financing of the fall election if the other did, they scold both for their current wavering: Obama’s, on whether he’ll take public money in the fall, and McCain, for trying to get out of the program (after signing up for it) during the primaries.

First, there really isn’t a moral equivalency. Obama made a promise, and it was probably a dumb one to make. McCain, however, enaged in a highly complicated scheme to use federal matching funds as collateral without appearing, legally, to do so. Paul Kiel at TPM Muckraker has the sordid details here. And this is amusing – McCain says it’s his constitutional right to opt out. Yet the Times seems to gloss over the difference:

In a debate that only law students could enjoy, McCain’s critics suggest that the prospective Republican nominee is legally bound to accept public financing for the rest of the period before the party convention in September — and also bound by spending limits. McCain’s defenders reply that he didn’t irrevocably commit himself to accepting matching funds and that his eligibility for public funds was not technically collateral for his campaign loan. Legalities aside, it is embarrassing that the senator — the coauthor of the 2002 McCain-Feingold law increasing government oversight of election campaigns — has soured on public financing after taking advantage of the expectation that he would participate in the system. [Emphasis mine]

Obama too experienced what might be called a contribution conversion. Last year, when he was still an underdog to Clinton, a spokesman for his campaign reacted positively to a proposal by McCain that he would accept federal financing in the general election if the Democratic nominee did. But with his new front-runner status — and facing the prospect of raising more private money than McCain in a general election — Obama has begun to waver. Asked in the last Democratic debate if he was waffling on a promise to accept public financing, he dodged, saying that, if nominated, he wants to “sit down with John McCain and make sure that we have a system that is fair for both sides.” That sounds like the “old politics” that Obama inveighs against.

Gee, I don’t know – how much money are the 2008 version of the swift boaters going to raise? If it were really just McCain’s money vs. Obama’s money, I’d argue Obama should swallow hard and take the public dough. But it’s not – there’s party money, and independent money, and the campaign has to be able to respond to all of them.

Furthermore, the problem money in politics isn’t the $2,300 contributions an individual can make to a presidential campaign. It is, on one hand, money bundled by heavy hitters who are, themselves, maxed out, and much more seriously, it is the soft money raised by the Democratic and Republican National committees that allow for individual contributions of $28,500 per year. So all this hand-wringing about McCain and Obama opting out misses two larger points.

First, that their acceptance of public money will do nothing – I repeat, NOTHING – to reduce the impact of money on politics. Think of Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars, whispering to the Imperial Stormtroopers in Mos Eisley that “these aren’t the droids you’re looking for.” (And yes – I am that much of a geek.)

Second, if McCain thought he could out-raise Obama in the fall, he’d have forgotten about their mutual promise faster than he abandoned his principles on torture.

At this point, the campaign finance system is broken, helped along by a Supreme Court that seems to confuse money with speech. Obama was wise to stay out of it in the primaries, and he’d do well to abandon it for the general election. McCain got too clever by half in the primaries when he was fighting for his life, and while, absent an FEC with a quorum, he’ll do what he wants, he’s the one who signed up for the system in the first place. His reverse flip is a fun political issue for the Democrats, and it shows him to be the hypocrite he is as opposed to the Straight TalkerTM he claims to be, but other than the grab-the-popcorn aspect of it, I can’t get too worked up about it.

This, on the other hand…jeez.

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