By MARTIN SCHRAM
Scripps Howard News Service
June 25, 2008
RE: Campaign Financing -- Candor Fudged, Opportunity Blown.
This is one of those times when a candidate needs to be on the receiving end, instead of the dispensing end, of some straight talk. You have just jeopardized the excellent political brand -- as the "candidate of change" -- that you and your team spent long months crafting and perfecting. It is the brand that won you widespread appeal across the political spectrum, as Democrats, independents and even Republicans have told pollsters that, now more than ever, they want a leader who can change the way Washington works -- by making the government respond to the will of the people and not the will of the special interests.
You had things lined up just right. But you blew a great opportunity when you announced you will become the first major party presidential candidate since Watergate to reject public financing of your general election campaign. No, I'm not arguing that you should have accepted the $85 million in public funding. You'll raise three or four times that -- and it can be the difference between being America's next president or just a highly principled loser.
Your problem wasn't your final decision but your explanation of it. You compromised candor when you should have told the whole truth about what you were doing and why you were doing it. You especially went wrong when you said in your video statement: "...the public financing of presidential elections as it exists today is broken, and we face opponents who've become masters at gaming this broken system."
The problem with that is that it is true, but you know it is only part of the truth. You know the system was every bit as broken last November, when you declared, in a written answer to a questionnaire from the Midwest Democracy Network: "If I am the Democratic nominee, I will aggressively pursue an agreement with the Republican nominee to preserve a publicly financed general election."
You should have expected that every political reporter would have cited the whole list of times that you repeated that promise. But you got lucky in that most of the journalists never bothered -- indeed, the website politico.com was the only one I saw that did do the basic journalism. Still, you know that you used the same phrase in your February op-ed in USA Today. Then, in the Feb. 26, debate in Cleveland you said: "I will sit down with John McCain and make sure that we have a system that works for everybody."
And on April 27, you told your pals at 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."
Also, people know all about those independent efforts of the so-called 527 organizations that will spend lavishly in excess of their candidate's $85 million. Everyone saw how the Swift Boaters' television ads savaged John Kerry in 2004. So why did you think it was okay to simply explain your decision this past week by saying that the presidential public financing system was broken -- as if this is a development that happened after all of your past promises?
What you should have done was tell people the entire truth: The system has long been broken and must be fixed. But the goal of public financing has always been to prevent the candidates from being beholden to funding from special interests. And you are astounded by the fact that you have raised vast sums through the Internet -- not from special interest but from ordinary people. Your average contribution being a mere $85. And that, after all, is the ultimate in public financing -- it is the purely private, conservatives-delight, 100-percent capitalist way.
And, by the way: In your spirit of all-candor, all-the-time, you really need to tell people that, so far, John McCain hasn't benefited big-time from any independent ads -- but you have. Such as that TV ad paid for by the very liberal MoveOn.org and a labor union in which a mother is lovingly holding her baby and poignantly sticking it to McCain and his Iraq policy. No doubt you'll be condemning that ad any day now.
E-mail him at martin.schram(at)gmail.com
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