It's official: Whoever the Democrats eventually nominate will face an opponent, , who has opted for public financing and is therefore constrained by spending limits during the general election. No matter who wins in Pennsylvania today, the Democratic nominee is likely to decline public funds, keep raising millions of dollars and maintain a big spending advantage over McCain throughout the fall.
On Monday, the Politico reported that McCain's finance records show that he has begun the process of returning donations earmarked for the general election. McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds confirmed to National Review Online that McCain is preparing to accept public funds. Bounds also voiced concerns that likely Democratic nominee might back out of his commitment to accept public financing.
Last September, Obama checked "yes" on a questionnaire that asked whether he would accept public financing in the general election if the Republican nominee did so as well. Beneath the question, Obama elaborated on his past support for public financing of campaigns, as well as his commitment to "aggressively pursue" a publicly financed general election.
Once it became clear, however, that Obama could raise much more than McCain in the fall, he began to change his story. Spokesman Bill Burton insisted that Obama's answer on the questionnaire did not constitute a "pledge," and Obama told a group of donors earlier this month that "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."
Bounds says this kind of language "may serve as caution to voters, because [it] makes it appear that he doesn't have the ability to live up to his word and accept public financing. However, we'll just have to wait and see. . . . We have to move forward with the understanding that he's going to live up to his word, but there are things about his recent language that give pause."
, of course, never committed to take public funds in the general election. She's been raising private money for the general election since she launched her bid last year, and she has already amassed $16 million in cash for the fall, though she trails Obama in overall fundraising. He's raised over $236 million so far, to her $195 million. By contrast, McCain has only raised a total of $72 million thus far.
The temptation to forgo public financing and outspend McCain is even greater in light of John Kerry's decision to take public funds and agree to spending limits in 2004. It's a decision Kerry and his strategists said they lived to regret, and former Kerry aide Tad Devine encouraged Obama to go back on his word even if it risked damaging his integrity. "[S]ometimes you've got to say, 'Listen, I changed my mind. . . . I'm doing it because I want to win this race, and if Senator McCain doesn't like it, it's too bad.' " Devine told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.
Obama is not the only candidate whose declared principles are threatening to become a liability in the money race. The limitations McCain will accept as a publicly financed candidate will not apply to outside groups who want to spend their own money to criticize Obama. But McCain has spent so much of his career attacking these groups and their influence in politics, Republican fundraisers are having a hard time getting them to help McCain.
And McCain will need all the help he can get. With a donor base of close to 1.5 million, Obama could easily raise enough money to outspend McCain in the general election. According to public-financing rules, McCain will receive an $84 million grant from the federal government. In exchange, he will not be allowed to spend any outside money on campaign expenditures, except for legal and accounting fees.
Public money comes from taxpayers who check a box on their tax returns indicating that they'd like $3 from their tax payment to go into the Presidential Election Campaign Fund. Conservatives generally oppose this program because it diverts tax dollars that should go toward balancing the budget into a subsidy account for politicians.
Some - like the Cato Institute's John Samples - looked forward to 2008 as the year that the PECF became obsolete. With dwindling numbers of taxpayers supporting the program and candidates raising ever-increasing sums, it looked as though it might happen. Many in the press predicted that none of the campaigns would take federal funds this fall, but that was before McCain's fundraising troubles began. Obama made his pledge back when it seemed unlikely that McCain would reciprocate. Now he'll face an irresistible temptation to take the money and run.
By Stephen Spruiell
Reprinted with permission from National Review Online