“Senator Obama’s words are contradicted by deeds. He said he would — he pledged to take public financing as now Senator McCain has pledged. He has just reversed that pledge.
–Hillary Clinton surrogate Lanny Davis, CNN Late Edition, Feb. 17. 2008.
Obama spokesman Bill Burton on Thursday called public financing “an option that we wanted on the table,” but said “there is no pledge” to take the money and the spending limitations that come with it.–Associated Press report, Feb. 17, 2008, from Obama website.
Did Barack Obama ever commit himself to accept public financing for the general election if the Republicans made a similar pledge? The Obama and Clinton campaigns have been arguing this point for the last few days, and it is now the Fact Checker’s turn to weigh in.
The issue of public financing has come back to the fore now that John McCain appears to have locked up the Republican nomination. The Arizona senator has championed campaign finance reform. Last March, the McCain campaign publicly committed itself to accept public financing in the general election “if the Democratic nominee agrees to do the same.” In return for giving up the chance to raise hundreds of millions of dollars in private funds, both major candidates would receive around $85 million in public funds.
It is not only the Clinton campaign that is accusing Obama of breaking his word. Last week, a coalition of advocacy groups expressed “deep concern” at the possibility that the Illinois senator might wriggle out of what they depicted as a firm “pledge” to accept public financing in the general election.
To understand the background to this dispute, it is necessary to go back to February 2007 when the Obama campaign raised the possibility of accepting public funds with the Federal Election Commission. In a Feb. 1, 2007 letter to the FEC, lawyers for Obama asked whether the campaign could “provisionally raise funds for the general election but retain the option” of returning the contributions if an agreement was reached with other major candidates on accepting public financing. The FEC ruled on March 1 that this was permissable, as long as the general election funds were kept in a clearly separate account from the primary election funds.
The Obama campaign is correct in arguing that there is nothing in the Feb. 1 letter to the FEC that can be fairly interpreted as committing the campaign to accepting public financing. Obama spokesman Bill Burton told Politico on Feb. 28, 2007 that the senator would not necessarily commit himself to participating in the public financing system if the commission approved his proposal. “It would be a situation where if the Republican agreed to opt-in to the public financing system, it would be something we would explore,” Burton told Politico.
After the FEC issued its ruling, the rhetoric became less equivocal. On March 1, Burton challenged Republican candidates to follow McCain and agree to public financing. He said that Obama, if nominated, would “aggressively pursue an agreement with the Republican nominee to preserve a publicly financed general election.”
Many newspapers, including the Washington Post and the New York Times, interpreted this Burton statement as a commitment to accept public financing in the event of an Obama-McCain race. As far as I can tell, the Obama campaign made no effort to dispel this impression. His enthusiasm for public financing was a way of distinguishing himself from his rival Hillary Clinton, who was raising much more private money at the time.
The campaign went even further in answers to a questionnaire sent to the various political campaigns in September 2007 by the Midwest Democracy Network. The questionnaire posed a very simple question to the candidates: “If you are nominated for President in 2008 and your major opponents agree to forgo private funding in the general election campaign, will you participate in the presidential public financing system?”
You can read Obama’s response here. The candidate highlighted the simple answer “Yes” and elaborated as follows:
In February 2007, I proposed a novel way to preserve the strength of the public financing system in the 2008 election. My plan requires both major party candidates to agree on a fundraising truce, return excess money from donors, and stay within the public financing system for the general election. My proposal followed announcements by some presidential candidates that they would forgo public financing so they could raise unlimited funds in the general election. The Federal Election Commission ruled the proposal legal, and Senator John McCain (R-AZ) has already pledged to accept this fundraising pledge. If I am the Democratic nominee, I will aggressively pursue an agreement with the Republican nominee to preserve a publicly financed general election.
When I asked Burton about this yesterday, he said that Obama would address the issue of public financing when he becomes the Democratic nominee and that it is premature to decide the matter now.
UPDATE: WED 11:30 A.M.
Obama has now elaborated on his position in an op-ed for USA today. The op-ed appears to set several conditions for reaching an agreement on public financing with John McCain. It talks about the need to also regulate spending by outside groups, and warns that considerable effort will be required to reach a workable agreement. Here is the key passage:
The candidates will have to commit to discouraging cheating by their supporters; to refusing fundraising help to outside groups; and to limiting their own parties to legal forms of involvement. And the agreement may have to address the amounts that Senator McCain, the presumptive nominee of his party, will spend for the general election while the Democratic primary contest continues.
In other words, the “pledge” comes with asterisks and lawyerly footnotes. It is far from a done deal.
The Pinocchio Test
The Obama campaign has said different things at different times on the issue of public financing. While there may have been a little wriggle room in some campaign statements, Obama’s affirmative answer to the Midwest Democracy Network seems unequivocal. Now that Obama is raising $1 million a day, his enthusiasm for public financing appears to have waned.
Two Pinocchios for the land-of-Lincolner.