Obama Opts Out of Public Financing: Promise-Breaker or Reform-Shaker?

| Thu Jun. 19, 2008 2:00 PM EDT

In the decades after Watergate, the basic thrust of campaign finance reform was this: limit the flow of big-money private contributions to candidates. No more bags of money for the pols. Now, only donations of up to $2300 from individuals are acceptable. And in the presidential race, there is public financing: the nominees--if they agree to forgo fundraising--receive full underwriting of their general election campaigns. This year that subsidy is about $85 million.

This system has been an imperfect reform. There have been loopholes. Well-heeled private interests have poured money into independent efforts to support a preferred candidate or, more often, blast that candidate's opponent. And parties could raise money, while corporations could donate unrestricted amounts to presidential conventions. So the opportunity for one side to outspend the other (using unlimited donations from wealthy individuals, corporations or unions) has remained. The influence of big money has not been eradicated. Still, presidential candidates, once nominated, could focus on campaigning, rather than cash-hunting.

Now comes Barack Obama.

He has run for president as an agent of change who slams the money-talks ways of Washington. As an Illinois state senator and as a U.S. senator, he has passed reform measures. Yet on Thursday, in an email to his supporters, he announced that he would not participate in the public financing system in the general election, despite an earlier promise to stay within this system. He will be the first major presidential nominee to reject public financing for the general election since Watergate. Instead of relying on that check from the U.S. Treasury, he will continue his record-setting fundraising operation. John McCain's campaign immediately and predictably proclaimed that this decision "undermines his call for a new type of politics" and will "weaken and undermine the public financing system."

Obama said:

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