Monday, June 30, 2008


I'm disappointed about the way Barack Obama handled his recent decision to reject the public financing system.

Barack wrote this to Midwest Democracy Network last November:
"I have been a long-time advocate for public financing of campaigns combined with free television and radio time as a way to reduce the influence of moneyed special interests.... My plan requires both major party candidates to agree on a fundraising truce, return excess money from donors, and stay within the public financing system for the general election.... Senator John McCain (r-AZ) has already pledged to accept this fundraising pledge. If I am the Democratic nominee, I will aggressively pursue an agreement with the Republican nominee to preserve a publicly financed general election."
Now, I'm no expert. All I know of the public financing system I learned today, here. But a key part of that system is an 85 million dollar spending limit--a limit already exceeded by the funds Obama has raised.

According to Obama's campaign, 94% of donators gave in amounts of $200 or less. I'm inclined to interpret this cynically to mean that even if a person gives $100 10 times, they are still counted in the 94%. Nevertheless, the Republicans certainly can't come close to this level of middle- and lower-class support. There's no doubt that Obama, more than any other serious candidate in recent memory, counts on the grassroots for his support, and this is much to his credit. I've heard this public financing system would force him to return much of the funds already donated (logistically difficult, I would think?) and prevent further grassroots donations.

So, I don't really blame him for changing his mind about public financing under these unexpectedly favorable circumstances. But make no mistake: he did break his promise. He flip-flopped. Therefore, it is disquieting to me that on this occasion he is not only unapologetic, but does not acknowledge that anything has changed or that anything is amiss. To the contrary, he aggressively portrays this flip-flop as a further reason that Americans should not only vote for him, but donate more to his campaign!

What happened to straight talk? To shunning spin in favor of honesty? As a donator, I get frequent emails from Obama's campaign. Here's an excerpt of David Plouffe's message about this decision:
Even though we stood to receive more than $80 million in taxpayer funding for our campaign, the system has been so gamed and exploited by our opponents that it is effectively broken.

John McCain, the Republican National Committee, and their allies in so-called 527 groups that raise and spend unlimited contributions are dedicated to manipulating this broken system to raise as much money as possible -- and they've proven that they're very good at it.

A top McCain adviser told MSNBC earlier this month, "now that we're in the general election, the RNC money counts, the DNC money counts. So the truth is today, John McCain has more cash on hand and more money than Barack Obama does."

In April alone, they raised nearly $45 million. That's more than our campaign and the Democratic National Committee combined. And that doesn't include the plans of 527 groups like the one called "Freedom's Watch," which has said it will spend as much as $250 million under Karl Rove's direction to attack and defeat Barack Obama.
This sets off my Spidey Sense of Spin. First, David makes it sound like they are sacrificing over $80 million by turning down public funding, when in fact it's better for them financially. Barack and David have both played up the "brokenness" of the system, but it feels disingenuous when they were so eager to "pursue an agreement with the Republican nominee" to use public financing last year. And how exactly is it broken? As far as I know, Obama hasn't given an explanation longer than a TV soundbite, although the site I linked to earlier has helpful information. David also quotes a McCain man to indicate McCain is raising money faster than Obama, yet I have heard elsewhere that Obama has more money. So what is the truth? I don't know, but I am disinclined to assume David Plouffe is honest after he tries to feed me a plate of spin.

Mind you, if Obama really did "aggressively pursue an agreement" but the McCain camp adamantly refused to cooperate, I guess we could just forget about this matter because Obama wouldn't be breaking his promise. This article reports that "Bob Bauer met with McCain campaign counsel Trevor Potter and, according to Obama spox (sic) Bill Burton, Potter 'immediately made it clear there was no basis for further discussion,' that they weren't interested in any sort of agreement." But: "the McCain campaign... argues that Obama did not discuss this or try to negotiate at all with the McCain campaign."

Hmm. He-said-she-said. Typical Washington banter. I'd like to believe that the Obama camp really tried to come to an agreement. But somehow, though I can't put my finger on it, I am more inclined to think the McCain camp is telling the truth this time.

Of course, I'd still support Obama over most other politicians any day. But I'm still disappointed. Not disappointed that he rejected public financing. But disappointed that he didn't really try to keep his promise, and disappointed to have spin flung at me instead of honesty. In my opinion, after 8 years of George W. Bush, the most important quality in a presidential candidate is not his foreign policy experience, his plan for the economy or for health care, or his views on abortion.

After 8 years of George W. Bush, I now think the most important quality in a presidential candidate is his personal system of ethics. I'm not talking about something as trivial as personal sexual mores--you know, that issue on which Republicans tried to impeach Clinton. No, I'm talking about the kind of ethics that actually affects how the country is run--that determines whether America continues on its path of corporatocracy; that determines whether the gap between rich and poor will widen or narrow; that determines whether political discourse will become more honest or dishonest.

Would Barack Obama rather help the poor and downtrodden or enrich himself? Will he pursue a foreign policy that attempts to keep the third world in submission to U.S. financial interests, and that keeps terrorists at bay only by intimidation and threats, or will he pursue a policy that will instead seek prosperity for the peoples of the world, that will reduce terrorism by reducing the hatred that causes it?

We cannot know the answers to questions like these unless we can answer this simple question: is Barack Obama honest? I am certain that he basically is, but his handling of this issue does not, in my eyes, seem honest.

I have other doubts, too. Though I am convinced he is a good man, his thinking is annoyingly conventional. He doesn't advocate electoral reform or even electoral college reform. He doesn't talk about reducing the power of monopolies and duopolies. Improving Copyright law is not in his agenda. He doesn't shun military force as a solution to problems, although at least it's not his first choice. He wants to increase military spending. His stance is not strong enough against immunity for lawbreaking telecomms who implemented Bush's warrantless wiretapping program--and since the lawsuits are necessary to bring to light the extent and details of the program, his stance is not strong enough against the Bush Administration either.

But my point is, anything out of the mainstream is off the table for him.

Of course, I should point out that on none of these issues is McCain any better. To the contrary. But I came to like Obama when I read his book Audacity of Hope, and now anything from him that smacks of status quo, or of behaviour befitting a typical politician, is like a slap in the face.