Barack Obama is in a tough position. Assuming he wins the Democratic nomination for president, he’ll be facing John McCain in the general election, and McCain is going to try to hold Obama to his word about public financing. Last year, before Obama caught fire and started raising over $1 million a day, Obama said in a survey that he would participate in presidential public financing if his opponent did as well.
If I am the Democratic nominee, I will aggressively pursue an agreement with the Republican nominee to preserve a publicly financed general election.
Well, things have changed now. Obama is making money like crazy, and McCain has decided to call his bluff. This is clearly a winning strategy for McCain. If Obama backs down, McCain gets to call him a hypocrite, and if Obama accepts, McCain gets to be on a level financial playing field with the fundraising giant.
If McCain were to face Obama in the general election under public financing rules, each would get about $85 million to spend between September and Election Day in November. McCain would be the clear beneficiary because Obama has become the most prolific fundraiser in presidential politics and likely would be able to amass much more than $85 million from his donors.
If Obama were to accept public financing, he would have to give back all the extra money that he raised and didn’t use in the primaries. When asked if he would still accept public financing at the Tuesday Ohio debate, Obama’s response was ambiguous.
SEN. OBAMA: If I am the nominee, then I will sit down with John McCain and make sure that we have a system that is fair for both sides, because Tim, as you know, there are all sorts of ways of getting around these loopholes. …
MR. RUSSERT: So you may opt out of public financing. You may break your word.
SEN. OBAMA: What I — what I have said is, at the point where I’m the nominee, at the point where it’s appropriate, I will sit down with John McCain and make sure that we have a system that works for everybody.
I feel for Obama on this one. Public financing isn’t a simple issue. Obama has really changed the way money is raised in campaigns so far. He has almost a million unique donors, 90% of which are small donors who only donate $25-$50. This isn’t exactly the same thing as huge lobbyists donating thousands of dollars. Additionally, he’s right to say there are lots of loopholes. Even if both candidates accepted public financing, “independent” Republican groups could still spend hundreds of millions of dollars attacking Obama. It wouldn’t be smart for Obama to lock himself into a spending limit that would make it impossible for him to respond. These 527 groups have happened, with the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth attacking Kerry in 2004 and Hillary supporters’ American Leadership Project already attacking Obama. However, at the end of the day, Obama is in a lose-lose situation. Really, the only way he can stick to his word at this point is to accept public financing and all the consequences that go with it.
Of course, this is all assuming he becomes the nominee.