Senator Barack Obama's announcement Thursday that he would finance his campaign with private contributions was the final step of a slow walk away from public financing that began almost as soon as his campaign started 17 months ago.
Obama said he'd pursue public financing "aggressively." He committed to it in a written questionnaire. He even said, repeatedly, that he would meet personally with Senator John McCain to discuss a deal.
Instead, his campaign never even asked the Republican's aides for a meeting on the subject. And Obama, both campaigns said, never asked for a face-to-face meeting with McCain.
"It was clear that there was no point," said Obama spokesman Bill Burton.
Obama has offered a variety of reasons for opting out. He's cited the fact that McCain has, to some eyes, already skirted campaign finance rules. He's complained that McCain said he couldn't control attack ads from outside groups - though the only outside attack ads to run this cycle have been financed by Obama allies, and directed at McCain. More plausibly, Obama has argued that his reliance on small contributions is consonant with the central goal of campaign finance reform, which is liberating politicians from moneyed patrons.
Still, Obama's widely-anticipated announcement puts clear distance between the Democratic nominee and the traditional, bipartisan "reform" movement, which has included Republicans and appealed to upper-income voters of both parties. Senator John McCain has been a champion of campaign finance reform, and his Democratic counterpart on key legislation, Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold — who supports Obama — criticized his candidate's move.
"This is not a good decision," Feingold said Thursday in a statement. "While the current public financing system for the presidential primaries is broken, the system for the general election is not."
Some reform groups criticized Obama, while others held their fire, and McCain himself described Obama's decision as "a big deal."
"He has completely reversed himself and gone back, not on his word to me, but the commitment he made to the American people."
But if Obama alienated the reformers, he won plaudits from the pragmatists.
"The only people who care about it are a few professional activists and the press," said Bob Shrum, who argued - unsuccessfully - in 2004 that his client John Kerry should have opted out of public financing. (Kerry said Thursday he would have won the race had he done so.)
"The reform issue that Obama takes seriously, the reform issue the voters take seriously, is to try to shift power away from special interests in Washington," said Shrum. "In terms of what I care about,
which is winning this election, he made exactly the right decision."
Obama's move wasn't out of character. In fact - though he has at times adopted popular reform causes - Obama has never been a traditional reformer.
He came to politics through the community organizing movement, whose radical founder, Saul Alinsky, mocked highbrow reformers, and focused instead on the acquisition and use of power, with the ends often justifying the means.
In Obama's political life, that approach has translated into pragmatism. He's kept his distance from elements of the Democratic Party that demand purity, from Washington reformers to more ideologically-motivated liberal bloggers. Instead, his campaign has sought the Kennedy mantle, modeling the candidate after a revered Democratic family not known for its scruples.
"Their campaign is brutally pragmatic," said one Democratic operative. "They have the most exciting candidate since JFK and like that operation, they have their share of talented, ambitious and at times ruthless people. Barack gets to stay above the fray, while his campaign does whatever it takes to win."
Kerry's campaign, Shru wrote in his memoir, "No Excuses," had a fierce internal debate over whether to opt out of public financing. Obama's never seems to have seriously considered sacrificing its political advantage for a principle, and seems cheerfully resigned to being chided by East Coast editorial boards.
Obama has adopted the reform mantle when it's been convenient, but his rejection of public financing isn't his first such reversal this cycle. In late December in Iowa, his campaign manager, David Plouffe, fiercely attacked former the "big interests" - mostly labor unions — that poured a "flood of Washington money" into the state in "underhanded" efforts to support his rivals. Obama himself mocked John Edwards' inability to stop the spending as a sign of weakness.
But just three weeks later, Obama made no effort to stop a union that supported him from placing attack ads directed at Senator Hillary Clinton on Spanish-language radio in Nevada, and he remained silent on the rising tide of labor money that boosted his campaign in the later primaries.
His journey on public financing was longer and more tortured, though the destination has been clear since his online fundraising exploded last spring.
Obama was first asked about the public system on January 24, 2007, and suggested even then that he might opt out of it.
"Even as I support public financing, I think it's very important for Democrats to be competitive in the general election," he said. "That's a decision we are going to have to make."
That February 1, he offered a novel proposal to the Federal Elections Commission: He would raise money for the general election, but return it if he could reach an agreement with the Republican nominee to opt into the system.
Even while getting reformist credit for keeping the option alive, however, his aides avoided any stated commitment.
"We're looking to see if we can preserve the option," Burton told Politico February 7.
That November, the campaign appears to have slipped up. In response to a questionnaire from the relatively obscure Midwest Democracy Network, Obama appeared to commit clearly to public financing, provided the Republican would go along.
"If I am the Democratic nominee, I will aggressively pursue an agreement with the Republican nominee to preserve a publicly financed general election," he wrote.
He repeated that phrase in an op-ed in USA Today the next February, and expanded on it in a debate later that month.
"I will sit down with John McCain and make sure that we have a system that works for everybody," he said at a February 26 debate in Cleveland, a position he repeated in an April 27 interview with Fox News.
"I have promised that I will sit down with John McCain and talk about, can we preserve a public system, as long as we are taking into account third party, independent expenditures," he said.
It was the question of third-party spending that offered Obama his final pretext for pulling out of the public system. On June 12, McCain said he couldn't act as "referee" of independent groups, a stance Obama complained of in his web video Thursday morning announcing his decision to withdraw from the system.
McCain is "not going to stop the smears and attacks from his allies running so-called 527 groups, who will spend millions and millions of dollars in unlimited donations," Obama said.
Ironically, there are no major Republican independent efforts attacking Obama, though the left-leaning MoveOn.org has put more than $500,000 behind an advertisement showing a mother telling McCain that he can't take her infant son to war.
Pressed to name an independent effort, Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs cited Floyd Brown, an obscure Republican operative who has produced web videos attacking Obama's religion and his record, but had not raised enough money to air them.
McCain's aidesalso mocked Obama's suggestion that he would "aggressively" seek an agreement with the Republican who had opted into the public financing, in the absence of his own torrent of online donations.
"I don't think he pursued it at all - never mind aggressively," said the McCain campaign counsel, Trevor Potter.
Avi Zenilman and David Paul Kuhn contributed to this report.