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Editorial: Obama goes for the gold … on fundraising

Sen. Barack Obama is right when he says that our current system of public financing for presidential elections “is broken.” The 30-year-old system, financed through voluntary $3 checkoffs on federal tax returns, emerged from a now-distant political galaxy that had not yet spawned soft-money subterfuges, 527 groups and billion-dollar presidential campaigns.
It’s a system that offers the facade of fairness at the top of the presidential tickets while obscuring a morass of loopholes. This enables the candidates themselves to claim they’re taking the high road while private donations are still financing rear-guard attacks orchestrated by the parties themselves or their swift-boating minions.
Still, as flawed as the system may be, Obama initially made a commitment to take public financing if his Republican rival did the same. And the inherent weaknesses in the system were just as apparent at that time, months before he became the presumptive Democratic nominee, as they were Thursday, when Obama officially announced he would opt out of the system.
So, what’s changed for the candidate of change?
He’s proven himself to be a prodigious fundraiser, that’s what. Obama has shattered presidential campaign records, amassing more than $265 million through April, according to the Associated Press. On the Republican side, McCain had raised nearly $115 million, although that apparent disadvantage is offset by the resources of the Republican National Committee, which has far more artillery in its war chest than its Democratic counterpart. Obama will thus become the first candidate to shun public financing since Congress passed the 1970s-era post-Watergate reform laws. McCain so far has indicated he intends to accept public funding for the general election.
Obama can ó and has ó offered several rationalizations for his decision. His contributions have largely come through relatively small donations from individuals. He is shunning lobbyist and political action committee contributions and has directed the Democratic National Committee to do likewise. If elected, he also has pledged to work for reform of campaign financing laws so that they actually restore some sanity to the system, as the law writers originally intended. All of which is commendable, but behind the rationale lies the financial reality: He won’t accept public funds because that would neutralize his fundraising advantage.
Politically, his decision makes sense. It’s the kind of decision a politician makes if he wants to win. But it’s also a disappointing reversal of his earlier stance, and it illustrates why true campaign reform remains an elusive, if not impossible, goal in Washington as well in statehouses across the land. Politicians inevitably behave like politicians, ultimately choosing self-interest and expediency over principle. They advocate reform, but not at the expense of their own ambitions.

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