Presumptive Democratic nominee Sen. Barack Obama - the “people-powered” presidential candidate who previously promised to publicly finance his campaign - on Thursday abandoned that pledge, becoming the first candidate since the funding system’s post-Watergate creation to decline the money.
The decision to forgo more than $84 million in public funds and instead raise massive sums from a 1.5-million-donor network was hailed by supporters as allowing his fundraising juggernaut - which went live with ads in 18 states Thursday - a clear advantage against presumed Republican nominee Sen. John McCain.
But Mr. McCain, other national Republicans and some campaign finance reformers excoriated the senator from Illinois as breaking trust with voters.
Mr. Obama is the first major party candidate to decline public financing of the general election campaign since 1974 when Congress created the system designed to reduce the influence of wealthy donors in politics. It’s a system Mr. Obama once said he “strongly” supported but now believes is “broken” and being manipulated by Republicans.
TWT EDITORIAL: Obama reneges
The senator revealed the long-anticipated move in a Web video to his massive list of supporters, urging donations and underscoring the reason he is opting out.
“If we don’t stand together, the broken system we have now, a system where special interests drown out the voices of the American people will continue to erode our politics and prevent the possibility of real change,” Mr. Obama said. “Join me, and declare your independence from this broken system and lets build the first general election campaign that’s truly funded by the American people.”
McCain aides said Mr. Obama has proved himself a “typical politician” since he retreated from his pledge to “aggressively” try to reach an agreement, and the Democrat acknowledged to supporters it was no easy decision, “especially because I support a robust system of public financing of elections.”
Mr. McCain told reporters Thursday he will stay within the public financing system and called the Obama decision a violation of trust that he considers “disturbing to all Americans.”
“This is a big deal,” the Arizona Republican complained, saying Mr. Obama “completely reversed himself.”
In 2000, Republican George W. Bush became the first candidate to scrap public financing in the primary, and most major-party primary candidates have followed suit.
Sen. Russ Feingold, Wisconsin Democrat who partnered with Mr. McCain in 2002 to reform campaign finance laws by primarily eliminating the unregulated flow of cash to national political parties, disputed the Obama premise that the system is broken.
Mr. Feingold also praised his own proposed bill to reform the system again, a measure Mr. Obama supports and Mr. McCain does not. The Feingold bill increases the public financing spending limits from $75 million to $100 million per candidate and eliminates state-by-state funding limits for the primaries. It requires disclosure of big donors who bundle multiple donations.
“Senator Obama is committed to reforming the current system, and I look forward to working on this and a wide range of other reform issues with him when he becomes president. But this decision was a mistake,” he said.
Mr. Obama, who had $46.5 million in the bank as of April, will solicit money from the same private donors who helped him raise more than $265 million since the campaign began in January 2007.
Mr. McCain, who has raised $96 million to date, had $24 million cash on hand at the end of April.
But when each candidate’s figures is combined with their respective party figures, it’s Mr. McCain with the advantage - something his team has been pointing out lately and a fact the Obama camp used as justification for the decision.
The Republican National Committee’s $40 million cash on hand at the end of April brings the Republican Party total to $64 million on hand, while the Democratic National Committee’s $4.4 million in the bank gives the Democrats about $51 million in total. New figures for May will be released Friday, and both parties have been holding big-dollar fundraisers.
The Obama campaign argued Mr. McCain forced the issue by using the Democrats’ prolonged primary season after he wrapped up the nomination to raise money and run a general election ad in Ohio 21,000 times. Obama aides said he had given a green light to spending from outside groups not governed by the same laws since Mr. McCain last week said, “I can’t be a referee” to which groups are running attack ads.
The RNC lashed out as well, noting that the toughest ad on television - hitting Mr. McCain for his support for the Iraq war - is sponsored by independent pro-Obama groups MoveOn.org and AFSCME. They also noted that labor unions plan a $53 million anti-McCain campaign.
Team Obama pushed back against broken promise accusations, saying Mr. Obama always said the two camps would have to agree.
But aides said yesterday that Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain never personally met to talk about the issue and that the Obama campaign said no agreement was possible after the campaigns’ chief attorneys met for less than an hour earlier this month.
When Mr. Obama began to back away from that suggestion during the primary season, his rival Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, New York Democrat, sharply criticized him for going back on his word.
The McCain campaign also provided a “timeline” of his reversal that began with his February 2007 inquiry to the Federal Elections Commission as to whether he could raise money from donors but later return the money if the Republican nominee agreed to use only public funds for the general.
“Should both major party nominees elect to receive public funding, this would preserve the public financing system, now in danger of collapse, and facilitate the conduct of campaigns freed from any dependence on private fund-raising,” the Obama campaign wrote the FEC.
In a November questionnaire for the Midwest Democracy Network Mr. Obama answered, “Yes,” he would “participate in the presidential public financing system,” and even added: “Senator John McCain has already pledged to accept this fundraising pledge.”
“I do not expect that a workable, effective agreement will be reached overnight,” Mr. Obama wrote in a USA Today February editorial. “When the time comes, we will talk and our commitment will be tested. I will pass that test, and I hope that the Republican nominee passes his.”
Blogger Markos Moulitsas of Daily Kos hailed Mr. Obama’s decision and said it would have been “political malpractice” for Mr. Obama to “tell his millions of small-dollar donors that they couldn’t invest financially in his campaign.”
“Of course, Republicans will whine that Obama ‘broke his promise.’ They’ve got no other choice. McCain is getting crushed financially, and has little of the popular support that Obama enjoys,” Mr. Moulitsas said.
Obama supporters also cheered the decision on BarackObama.com, which the campaign turned into a hub announcing the decision and urging donations under a “Declare your independence from a broken system” banner.
Sheree Williams boasted that she had “just donated another $50” and promised to give another $200 on June 30. “Who’s with me??? Let’s take back AMERICA!!!” she wrote. She exemplifies the Obama network - the average donation is $88, far less than the $2,300 maximum.