Friday, February 22, 2008; A10
Last week, a coalition of advocacy groups, including Common Cause and the League of Women Voters, expressed “deep concern” that Sen. Barack Obama might wriggle out of what they depicted as a “pledge” to accept public financing in the general election. The Obama campaign denies making a formal promise to give up the opportunity to raise private money. So, what is the truth?
To understand the background, it is necessary to go back to February 2007, when the Obama campaign raised the possibility of accepting public money with the Federal Election Commission. In a letter to the FEC, lawyers for the Democratic presidential candidate asked whether the campaign could “provisionally raise funds for the general election but retain the option” of returning the money if an agreement were reached with other candidates on accepting public financing. The FEC ruled on March 1 that this was permissible, as long as the general-election money was kept in a separate account.
The Obama campaign is correct in arguing that there is nothing in the letter to the FEC that can be interpreted as a commitment to accept public financing. Obama spokesman Bill Burton told Politico.com last Feb. 28 that the senator would not necessarily commit himself to public financing if the commission approved his proposal. “It would be a situation where if the Republican agreed to opt in to the public financing system, it would be something we would explore,” Burton told Politico.
After the FEC ruling, the rhetoric became less equivocal. On March 1, Sen. John McCain, who is now the Republican front-runner, agreed to accept public funding during the general-election campaign “if the Democratic nominee agrees to do the same.” Burton challenged GOP candidates to follow McCain’s example. He said that Obama, if nominated, would “aggressively pursue an agreement with the Republican nominee to preserve a publicly financed general election.”
Many newspapers, including The Washington Post, interpreted this statement as a commitment to accept public financing in the event of an Obama-McCain matchup. The Obama campaign made no effort to dispel this impression.
The campaign went even further in answers to a questionnaire that the Midwest Democracy Network sent to candidates last September. The survey posed a simple question: “If you are nominated for President in 2008 and your major opponents agree to forgo private funding in the general election campaign, will you participate in the presidential public financing system?”
Obama replied “Yes.”
Obama’s campaign now says it is “premature” to address the question of public financing in the general election. In an article for USA Today on Wednesday, the senator appeared to set several preconditions for accepting the money.
He wrote: “The candidates will have to commit to discouraging cheating by their supporters; to refusing fundraising help to outside groups; and to limiting their own parties to legal forms of involvement. And the agreement may have to address the amounts that Senator McCain, the presumptive nominee of his party, will spend for the general election while the Democratic primary contest continues.”
In other words, the “pledge” comes with asterisks and footnotes. It is far from a done deal.
THE PINOCCHIO TEST
The Obama campaign has said different things at different times about public financing. While some campaign statements may have had a little wiggle room, Obama’s affirmative answer to the Midwest Democracy Network seems unequivocal. Now that he is raising $1 million a day, his enthusiasm for public financing appears to have waned. Two Pinocchios.
ONE PINOCCHIO: Some shading of the facts.
TWO PINOCCHIOS: Significant omissions or exaggerations.
THREE PINOCCHIOS: Significant factual errors.
FOUR PINOCCHIOS: Real whoppers.
THE GEPPETTO CHECK MARK: Statements and claims contain the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.