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OFF TO THE RACES

Public And Private

Obama Is Right Not To Accept Public Financing

One of this week's big political debates surrounds the decision of Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., to eschew public financing, a decision that many critics say constitutes him breaking a campaign promise and exposes him to allegations of hypocrisy.

It's a fair guess that an impartial jury might well convict him if this was a criminal offense, rather than a commonplace activity in American politics.

 

And by opting to stay in the publicly financed campaign system, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., earns the right to flail away at the presumptive Democratic nominee for selling out and going back on his word.

If the financial playing field were level, the chances of Obama having the opportunity to define himself would be much less.

One of the byproducts of each major party nominating its most self-righteous and sanctimonious candidate is that with some degree of regularity in the campaign, each will be embarrassed by not adhering to an impossibly high, and politically impractical, standard of moral and ethical perfection.

 

Obama and McCain have had to jettison talented and experienced people because those people made their livings petitioning the government on behalf of aggrieved people or others with business before the government, or because a vetter didn't maintain the standard that had been set only for the vettee.

Perhaps it is because I am on the wrong side of 50 years of age that I don't understand the concept of "post-partisan," the new buzzword that, as best I can tell, means that your last name is not Bush, Clinton or Dole.

But if Obama is to be elected president, and it would seem at this stage that there is about a 50-50 chance he will be, I am a bit relieved that a potential president would be disinclined to give up a likely three- or four-to-one spending advantage.

I strongly suspect that if Obama had agreed to tie both hands behind his back going into the general election, the word "naive" might be thrown around once or twice, possibly more than "hypocrite" is now.

 

McCain has every right to question Obama's honesty and integrity for this; he can certainly milk this for some political value. After all, he is going to be seriously outspent and should be able to get what marginal benefit he can get out of this awful situation.

And if there is anyone who believes that if the tables were turned, McCain wouldn't take the extra money and run like a thief, I have some land on the southern tip of Plaquemines Parish, La., that would make for a great beach resort, with a guarantee of no hurricanes hitting.

The Gallup Organization's daily tracking polls for this month show a tight race, rarely moving past the error margins, with both candidates under 50 percent of those surveyed.

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Those numbers hardly translate at the moment to an Electoral College majority for either candidate.

With a race this close, it is difficult to imagine anyone giving up a potentially game-changing financial advantage, and it is unrealistic to expect it.

It is equally unreasonable to think that McCain would not make every effort to make Obama pay for taking that advantage and for McCain's campaign to contrast its operations with Obama's largesse and portray McCain as the reformer in the race, for whatever good that might do.

It's still a fair bet that Obama will use some national network advertising over the course of this summer to attempt to drive some national poll numbers his way.

With this, he can shape the public and media perception of the contest and sow discord among Republicans that a Democrat is spending money and drawing more votes out of historically Republican base states -- with everyone knowing that McCain cannot possibly match him.

But there is another reason to opt out of public funding.

Obama has to more fully develop the perception of who he is. The blank spaces on his canvass will be filled, and the only questions are who will fill them and what it will look like.

Will those blanks be filled with flattering colors or pejorative images?

The new Obama 60-second ad that began running in 18 states last week is only the beginning. Voters have to identify with Obama on some level, and feel that they have the same core values that he has, or he will lose this election.

Most voters are being asked, for the first time, to vote for someone in a presidential race who is very different from themselves. But, for Obama to win, they must see something of themselves in him.

The polls very clearly show that voters want change and the political and fiscal advantage for the Democratic Party would seem to favor a Democrat winning the White House.

What isn't clear is whether McCain represents enough change and whether Obama represents too much change, someone so different as to constitute a risk.

With a campaign war chest this large, Obama has a pretty good chance of defining himself better than others who will seek to do it for him.

If the financial playing field were level, the chances of Obama having the opportunity to define himself would be much less. That's why an Obama supporter should be hesitant to criticize this decision and an opponent would be well advised to flail away and try to get some value out of this reversal.

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