Sunday, June 22, 2008

Obama on public financing: there is an underbelly to this


Okay, Barack Obama has changed his position on public financing and said that he would negotiate an agreement with John McCain. He has been accused of hypocrisy, because allegedly he had said in the past that he supports public financing.

Journalist Michael Dobbs has a “fact checker” piece in Washington Post online this evening that nitpicks over whether Obama really did “pseudo-promise” to use public financing. There was some quibbling over the idea that negotiations needed to be completed. The link is here and includes a YouTube video debate excerpt from Cleveland in Feb. 2008.

Public financing relates to that little box you check off on your income tax refund; fewer people check it off. But the significance of it is the spin on our style of democracy.

When campaign money is lavishly privately financed, conventional wisdom goes, there is a tendency for candidates to pander to special interests. However, during the primaries, Obama, compared to Hillary Clinton, raised money with beaucoup small donations, who would often repeat. Obama hired extensive professional fund raising help. Since there are more small donors, the process seems more democratic and less susceptible to corruption. However, a race to raise huge amounts of money tends to create a mindset with voters that political activism is largely about throwing money at candidates who are more likely to represent their own individual needs. I prefer a system where the advocacy is about the ideas and policies themselves rather than candidates. I am more concerned with winning arguments than winning converts. I’ve had dinner debates with people about this (particularly at an Embers in Minneapolis that went out of business right afterwards; I remember the occasion well).

That's why public financing makes some sense. Remember the controversy about three years ago as to whether blogger "endorsements" or links amounted to "contributions". The FEC has said that, within certain parameters, they don't' but it's easy to imagine how publicly financed candidates could try to leverage the media and bloggers. So, stick to the issues.

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