Obama’s New Spending Proposal, and Possible Motivations

Barack Obama has a new proposal that could shake up the 2008 presidential election. He wants to limit fundraising and spending in the general election to public financing limits, which are hundreds of millions lower than what the candidates are expected to raise. Obama says that his justification is saving the public financing system, which is on the verge of death due to the fact that several high-profile candidates — McCain, Clinton, and Edwards — have all started raising money outside of the system, knowing they’ll easily exceed the system’s limits. Other candidates — Obama, Giuliani, Romney, Gingrich, Gore? — would likely exceed the limits as well, if they raised money unbridled.

But Obama’s explanation is hard to believe, because the public financing system is clearly inadequate for today’s campaigns and not much worth saving: while the public financing limits are $150 million, current speculation says that the major party nominees will likely raise and spend over $500 million. Any system that is that badly outdated needs to be revamped, not protected. Especially because even if Obama alters the fundraising dynamics of this race, the public financing system will be even more outdated in 2012. The market simply won’t allow the limits as they currently exist.

The New York Times gets at the easy explanation — targeting Hillary:

Mr. Obama’s inquiry appears to be a pointed response to Mrs. Clinton, whose campaign was the first to announce that it would forgo public financing for both the primary and general elections.

Now that doesn’t make sense, if I read the Times article correctly and the Times is reporting Obama’s proposal in full. Obama is suggesting that candidates go through the primary spending as much as they please, and after the party conventions the nominees would come together and agree to limit spending from that point forward.

This pretty clearly hurts Obama, because Clinton has the biggest war chest and has proven to have the strongest fundraising abilities. She could outspend Obama in the primary and then face another fundraising behemoth in the general. To be frank, it’s impossible to tell what would happen in the general, because McCain’s popularity could go in any number of directions, and the Republican base’s reaction to Giuliani and Romney — while initially not positive — hasn’t been fully seen. Clinton could face someone with the same amount of money as her, or significantly less.

The real explanation, in my eyes, is that this move burnishes Obama’s image as the savior-cleanser of modern politics. In the video released on his website declaring his intention to form a presidential exploratory committee, Obama said he is more concerned with the “smallness of our politics” than anything else. This is a way to act on that rhetoric. It feels disingenuous to me, a purely political, image-based move, because the proposal is likely to go nowhere (it’s asking the heavy-hitters to give up wayyy too much money), but I wonder if we can expect more of these sorts of drain-the-Washington-swamp ideas from the Barack Obama campaign.