Zero Outrage for Private-Financing Obama on the Left?

The absence of liberal outrage over Barack Obama’s decision to reject public financing for his presidential campaign took a jaw-dropping turn on the hard-left Pacifica Radio network and its show "Democracy Now!" Host Amy Goodman, who regularly welcomes long screeds from Bill Moyers and his fervor about our bought-and-sold elections, welcomed two campaign "reformers" on Monday, and both failed to criticize Obama or his decision. Goodman proclaimed: "I have to say, it’s interesting to hear campaign finance groups be so uncritical of this decision when this is the very issue that, for example, you, John Rauh, have set up your organization around, Americans for Campaign Reform, and particularly around the issue of clean money and elections and cutting down the role money plays in elections."

This raises the question: have liberals been touting campaign finance "reform" out of genuine socialist conviction, or has it all just been a cynical pose that only lasts as long as they perceive conservatives and Republicans will have a campaign fundraising advantage? Where is Bill Moyers on this? He skipped the fire-and-brimstone sermonizing about it on his Bill Moyers Journal last Friday, a day after Obama’s announcement.

Goodman’s guests were Massie Ritsch, communications director for the Center for Responsive Politics, and John Rauh of Americans for Campaign Reform. Rauh ran for the Senate in New Hampshire as a Democrat in 1992 and lost. Ritsch and Rauh both acted less like outraged reformers and more like Obama-favoring political analysts. Rauh said the public-financing amounts were too low for Obama to be competitive. But if you believe strongly in the ideological concept of public financing, wouldn’t you support it regardless of how the liberal competes in the system? Obviously not.

GOODMAN: Massie Ritsch, your first response to Obama’s reversal of his position to participate in public financing?

MASSIE RITSCH: Well, it was a reversal of position, Amy, but it, I think, also reflected a reversal of fortune for Obama. When he made the pledge that was fairly clear about over a year ago that he would aggressively pursue an agreement to take public financing, he, for one thing, didn’t think probably that he could raise nearly $300 million in the primary. And I think, more significantly, he probably didn’t expect John McCain to be his opponent. He was thinking maybe Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani, people who hadn’t really expressed any support for public financing or even for John McCain’s campaign finance reforms, the McCain-Feingold bill. And so, Obama thought maybe he was in the clear to take a higher road on this and then, lo and behold, John McCain, whose name is on landmark campaign finance reform legislation and is a supporter of public financing, ends up being the nominee and essentially may have called his bluff, and Obama’s fundraising improved to a level that we’ve never seen before.

AMY GOODMAN: John Rauh, your response?

JOHN RAUH: Well, I think Obama’s mistake was the commitment that he made a year or so ago. It’s been clear all along that $84 million in the general presidential election is not sufficient, particularly for a new candidate. In this case, we have a candidate, quite new, not known by most Americans, wins Iowa, starts to bring in a lot of support post-Iowa, but his background is unusual for a presidential candidate, his name is unusual, and so clear if you go back to when he made this commitment, I think that’s where the mistake was made.

We at the Just $6 campaign, Americans for Campaign Reform, have for some time now, Amy, estimated that it would cost about $125 million, not $84 million, for a presidential campaign. And frankly, with the 24-7 cable, with all the attack ads that have been going on in the ‘04 presidential, and we presume will happen again, we’re going to take a fresh look after November to even see if the $125 million is high enough.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain, Massie Ritsch, Barack Obama’s reference to 527s and how they fit into this picture?

MASSIE RITSCH: Well, these are the outside issue groups that we really—I think most people became aware of in 2004, though they’ve existed long before that. The Swift Boat Veterans who helped sink John Kerry’s candidacy by questioning his war service, that was an example of 527s. At the time, on the left was a 527. These are groups that can raise unlimited amounts of money from just about anybody, including directly from corporations, from labor unions, from industry groups, even from foreigners, can contribute to these outside organizations. And then they can run advertising or do other things that, to most of us, would seem to be campaigning. In the case of the Swift Boat Veterans, they ran ads where they said John Kerry was, quote, "unfit for command." Now, since we have a nickname for our president or another name that we call the presidency of commander-in-chief, it was pretty clear that they were saying, "Don’t vote for John Kerry," but because they didn’t explicitly say, "Do not vote for John Kerry," at the time, they were within the bounds of the law.

Now, the Federal Election Commission decided and ruled that the Swift Boat Vets and some other groups that were active in 2004 behaved illegally, that they were explicitly, overtly and expressly advocating for or against a candidate and that they should have only been able to do that using limited campaign dollars as a campaign or a political action committee could do. Now, they didn’t reach that decision until almost two-and-a-half years after the election was over, and they fined these groups what amounted to about one percent of their overall receipts. So it wasn’t a particularly strong deterrent.

The question is, for 2008, will we see these groups popping up? On the right, so far, there’s really not a whole lot of activity suggesting that independent groups are going to go after Obama or other Democrats. But these groups can spring up overnight. They are like weeds. Because they can rely on unlimited donations, someone could pump $10 million in overnight to an organization, and they could have a very quick impact. So it remains to be seen just how active they’ll be on both the right and the left.

Then Goodman raised an unsurprising point that Rauh was a Democratic partisan with an Obama-supporting spouse:

AMY GOODMAN: John Rauh, you ran for Senate yourself in New Hampshire. I know that you’re a Barack Obama supporter, but are you critical at all of what he has done?

JOHN RAUH: Well, first, a full disclosure: my wife is one of Obama’s four chairs here in New Hampshire. I haven’t taken a public position, because Americans for Campaign Reform is very bipartisan.

Before getting to your question, let me just point out, Matthew describes quite well the 527 situation, but let’s be frank. Recognizing the beauty of the First Amendment, the freedom of speech in our Constitution, private money, whether it’s 527s or, if they’re eliminated, direct checks sent to ABC television or what have you, private money will always impact elections in the United States, as long as we respect the most beautiful value we have, the freedom of speech. Therefore, for those of us who support voluntary public funding, Amy, it’s vital that the amounts be high enough not only to get one’s message out, but also to answer attacks from 527s or independent expenditures.

Now, as far as Obama’s decision and how I see that, let me just say, as I said before, the mistake that was made was a year ago. $84 million was not going to be enough for Senator Obama’s campaign. How one looks at the decision—he’s put himself between a rock and hard place. There was not a good decision. If he violated his commitment, obviously there are problems for that. If he stuck to his commitment, he probably doesn’t have the resources he needs to answer the attacks that will probably be coming. So I think it’s a very personal decision. I think different people would have made this decision versus that decision. He was in a very difficult position once he made that pledge a year ago.

For most of us who haven’t been paying attention to Mr. Rauh’s socialist group, it may come as a surprise that he has not always suggested that private money is a beautiful valve of freedom of speech. Here’s John Rauh on the liberal PBS program Now in 2006:

Let's back up for a moment and take a look at the current private financing system ... Under this system of few Americans in this great democracy. A few Americans are funding our political elections. That makes no sense. Our Forefathers would all roll over if they knew that. This is a democracy. We all need to be involved. The only way we all need to be involved is to get rid of this private financing system on a voluntary basis and go to public funding which would come from an expenditure of the Congress.

At this point in the Pacifica discussion is where Goodman expresses surprise, if not anger, that there is no real forthcoming condemnation of Obama:

AMY GOODMAN: I have to say, it’s interesting to hear campaign finance groups be so uncritical of this decision when this is the very issue that, for example, you, John Rauh, have set up your organization around, Americans for Campaign Reform, and particularly around the issue of clean money and elections and cutting down the role money plays in elections. But, Massie Ritsch, one of the points that—

JOHN RAUH: But let me just respond to that, Amy. We strongly support, as does Senator Obama, voluntary public funding, as long as—as long as the amounts are enough. Publicly funding too low, forget it; it will not work. The voters won’t get to understand the candidates, their values and their perspectives. The amounts must be high enough.

AMY GOODMAN: But if Senator McCain agrees to the same limits?

JOHN RAUH: But Senator McCain is in a somewhat different situation. He didn’t start this presidential election unknown; well known, well defined. I’m not suggesting that $84 million is going to be enough for McCain, but I do make this point: it’s more probable that it’s enough for McCain than for the new candidate Obama.

Can you believe that? After months and months of media adoration and hype, a dozen news magazine covers and celebrity YouTube videos, Rauh’s claiming Obama being "unknown" at the "start" is a good excuse to reject public financing? This ignores all the 2004 and 2005 Obama hype as well. But then came the other liberal spokesman turning around and sounding like George Will on how the amount we spend on elections really isn’t that much money:

AMY GOODMAN: Massie Ritsch, one of the points that were made is that it was never considered that there would be so much money raised from the grassroots and in little amounts, and so that the spirit of campaign finance continues, because it’s not big money that is coming in, but the breakdown that you’ve done that shows big money and lots of smaller amounts of money contributed.

MASSIE RITSCH: Well, Obama, when you look at the number of donors he has, and he claims almost a million-and-a-half donors, the vast majority, 90 percent or more, maybe 98 percent, have given him small amounts, maybe less than $200. By our measure, though, when you look at the amount of money that those small donors account for, it’s still the minority of the money. 45 percent of his money comes from donors who have given less than $200, 55 percent comes from people who have given more than $200 dollars, and 30 percent comes from those who have of given $2,300 dollars or more, $2,300 being the maximum contribution you can give for the primary. So he’s still fueled in large part by bigger donations. But if you look at his donor base, it is far more vast than any candidate has ever amassed.

Let me address the spending, too, because John makes a good point that $84 million may not be enough for McCain, not enough for Obama and really not enough for any other presidential candidate in this modern era. When you average that out over the period that it will cover, from the conventions to Election Day, it’s about $1.2 million a day. You’re going to spend that on travel, staff and, very importantly and significantly, advertising. General Motors spends $9 million per day every year on just advertising alone, to advertise cars and trucks. So when you compare that to what we will be spending on something that I consider far more important than advertising cars and trucks, advertising presidential candidates and getting their messages out, it really isn’t a whole lot of money to work with, if you’re taking the public financing.

Obama’s rejection of public financing didn’t come with a lot of outraged soundbites from campaign "reformers." It seems this wasn’t a cynical censorship of the Left on Obama’s behalf. It was instead the cynical Left censoring themselves and their former passion for public long as the liberal victories came with that strategy.

Tim Graham
Tim Graham
Tim Graham is Executive Editor of NewsBusters and is the Media Research Center’s Director of Media Analysis