presidential frontrunner Barack Obama promises a new brand of politics, free of
the cynicism that has pervaded the field for generations.

Yet over the last
month, Mr. Obama has given every indication he’s prepared to renege on one of
the earliest, simplest and most unequivocal pledges of his campaign: a March
2007 pact with John McCain in which both men agreed to accept public financing
for the 2008 general election, assuming each won his respective party’s

The deal with Mr.
McCain was verbal but well-documented. Mr. Obama reiterated it in writing in a
September 2007 questionnaire with the Midwest Democracy Network, stating,
“I will aggressively pursue an agreement with the Republican nominee to
preserve a publicly financed general election.”

When he made those
statements, public financing made decent sense for Mr. Obama, the promising but
still-green senator from Illinois. Now that he’s a fundraising juggernaut, it
makes little sense, because when left up to private donors, Mr. Obama has
demonstrated a fundraising proclivity far surpassing that of Mr. McCain. By
accepting public financing for the general election, the field would be evened,
with both candidates taking $84 million in free money from the government but
also agreeing not to raise or spend private funds.

So Mr. Obama has had
an apparent change of heart on accepting public financing, which would be fine,
were it not for his original pledge to do otherwise. He has insisted no final
decision has been made (he does still need to win the nomination, granted), but
when pressed on the issue — most recently in a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
article earlier this week quoting Obama strategist David Axelrod — his
campaign has refused to reaffirm its earlier promise.

Meanwhile, little
scrutiny has been paid to Mr. Obama’s rationale for his public financing
retreat. Sure, he wants out because it would be to his financial advantage, but
that’s not how he’s framing it. Speaking at a fundraiser earlier this month in
Washington, D.C., the Illinois senator said “We have created a parallel
public financing system where the American people decide if they want to
support a campaign they can get on the Internet and finance it, and they will
have as much access and influence over the course and direction of our campaign
that has traditionally been reserved for the wealthy and the powerful.”

It’s a lengthy quote,
so allow me to state it succinctly: Mr. Obama has created a
“parallel” public financing scheme which… isn’t public financing at
all! It’s simply private parties giving him money, only they do so — wait for
it — electronically.

How this parallel
system accomplishes any of the stated goals of public election financing is
unclear. Certain content on the Internet can be weeded out — spam, pop-up ads,
etc. — but if there’s an online filter that strips the supposed corrupting
influence of money from campaign donations, I haven’t seen it.

Mr. Obama defends his
system as different because his donors are just regular people. There’s a
little truth to this, because 40 percent of his donors have given him less than
$200 a piece, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

But this isn’t a
revolutionary figure. In 2004, 31 percent of John Kerry’s primary contributors
came from the $200-or-less set, while 32 percent of George W. Bush’s donors fit
in this group (both accepted public funds in the general election). Mr. Obama’s
percentage is a bit higher, but it’s more than a little ridiculous to suggest
that somewhere between 32 and 40 a magic threshold is reached, turning private
donations into “public” financing. And Mr. Obama’s 40 percent pales
in comparison to the 61 percent that Howard Dean achieved in his ill-fated 2004
primary run.

John McCain counts 24
percent of his donors as being from the $200-or-less club. Meanwhile, though
the Arizona senator garners a greater percentage of his donations in big-money
chunks, in actual numbers, Mr. McCain has fewer than half as many donations
from people giving $2,300 (the maximum individual contribution per candidate
per election) as does Mr. Obama.

Mr. Obama has far
outpaced Mr. McCain in contributions from individuals associated with the
pharmaceutical industry, health service providers and commercial banks. Goldman
Sachs alone has given him more than $500,000, compared to only slightly more
than $100,000 to Mr. McCain. Hedge funds (and what says “little guy”
better than them?) have donated nearly $1.5 million to Mr. Obama.? Even
Big Tobacco has given slightly more to Mr. Obama thus far than to Mr. McCain.

In sum, Mr. Obama’s
“parallel public financing system” takes contributions from regular
people, but it reserves plenty of space for big-money spenders looking to give.

Of course, Mr. McCain
is not immune to legitimate criticism in the public financing realm either.
Though he remains committed to his agreement to accept public funds during the
general election, Mr. McCain has been looking to get out from his original
decision to also accept public funds for the primary season. It’s an ironic
reversal for a man who has spent so much energy in the last decade telling us
how money is ruining politics.

But at least Mr.
McCain isn’t reneging on any promise he made to another candidate, and he
hasn’t campaigned on an overarching theme of diametrically changing the tenor
of Washington politics as we know it. Mr. Obama, on the other hand, has.

Back in 2007, Mr.
Obama wrote in an FEC filing that if both presidential candidates accepted
public funding in the general election, it “would preserve the public
financing system, now in danger of collapse, and facilitate the conduct of
campaigns freed from any dependence on private fund-raising.”

But hey, those were —
as Mr. Obama is apt to say — “just words.” Cynicism be gone, indeed.


Ryan Masse ([email protected]) is a first-year
law student