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Monday, June 23, 2008

A Fundraising Dilemma

Barack Obama backpedalled on public financing. He broke a promise or he broke a pledge or he out and out lied -- it pretty much depends on who you ask. For himself, Obama is (not surprisingly) putting things that way.

In fact, if you go to, you're redirected to a fundraising page that reads:

Barack Obama just announced a major strategic decision -- this campaign will not participate in the broken public financing system for the general election.

Our opponents are dedicated to manipulating this broken system to raise as much money as possible -- and they've proven they are very good at it.

To compete, Barack has decided to keep putting his faith in ordinary people like you giving only what you can afford.

Make your first contribution to Join Barack today, and declare your independence from our broken system.

A counter at that page informs us that "[X number of] citizens have declared their independence from a broken system by supporting the first presidential campaign truly funded by the people." When I visited, X = 81,538. The counter tells us that their goal is 75,000 by July 4. A lot of people, it turns out, aren't turned off by Obama's reversal. Setting an average gift (dollars raised divided by number of donors) of a very low and very conservative $25, we can asssume very, very safely that Barack Obama has raised over $2,038,450 with this appeal in a matter of days. But I'm guessing the average gift is much higher. He's done a lot better than that.

We'll disregard McCain's reaction to this, since any opposition candidate will exaggerate a position shift like this -- if the situation were reversed, Obama would say pretty much the same thing. Team McCain's response is basically political boilerplate.

Likewise, we'll disregard recent polling that shows Obama holding a 15% lead nationally. That poll was in the field while this shift was happening and probably doesn't reflect the full effect of it. Still, 15% is a lot to lose overnight and I don't see him losing all -- if any -- of it over this issue.

In fact, we'll even disregard my own opinion on the issue (I think it was a good idea, by the way), because I used to be a professional fundraiser. While I'm not unbiased on any issue, I suppose I could be seen as especially and remarkably biased here.

Instead, we'll go to a very overlooked piece posted at Raw Story:

Bruce Weinstein, who writes an ethics column for Business Week, told CNN's Kiran Chetry on Friday that he sees Obama's action not as coldly calculating, but as "praiseworthy," because "it's important to keep a promise, but there are other things sometimes that are more important. ... Let's say you promise your daughter you're going to take her whitewater rafting ... but it turns out that weekend the river is raging. You would say, 'In this case, it's more important to avoid the danger of the water than to keep my promise.'"

"The spirit of the law that John McCain co-sponsored in 2002 was an attempt to make sure that everyone's voice is heard," Weinstein went on. "But the way it's played out, unfortunately, is that some special interests and political action committees are able to bypass the spirit of the law and to raise funds and engage in some unfortunate activities. And I think that's what Obama is trying to avoid, to make sure that everyone's voice is heard."

Is this accurate? Y'got me. I'm only really comfortable with truths that can be proved or disproved. Ethics would seem to be a matter of consensus, but if that were true, why would there be ethics experts like Weinstein? You can't prove he's wrong or right, because there's no outside objective measure to put it to. I guess this is why I never became a lawyer -- I need to hold things up to a set yardstick.

What gets me is when people think they get to have an opinion on something that's been settled -- that's why Creationists get under my skin. When you argue that one and one is not two, you're not offering a "differing opinion," you're freakin' loopy. This issue isn't really one of those cases.

The way I see it -- leaving the fundraising advantage that I support aside for the moment -- is that Obama's made several promises. If any of those promises later come into conflict, he's going to have to change his mind on one or all of them. In feudal Japan, he could easily have resolved this by committing seppuku. But Barack Obama's not a samurai, we're not in feudal Japan, and resolving an ethical dilemma with suicide should strike any sane person as a little extreme.

The only sane thing to do is accept that your ideas are in logical conflict and choose the one that best serves your overall mission and ideals. That's the real disagreement; did he choose the right one?

Whether or not this hurts Obama in the long run is an open question. I don't think it will. I don't know how well people understanding campaign financing and it'll be up to John McCain -- who has trouble explaining his own positions -- to educate the public on why he thinks Obama's move is wrong. The fact that McCain has his own campaign finance scandal to deal with won't help any -- it's arguably criminal. Obama's move is well within the law. And McCain's position reversals are numerous, to say the least. John McCain's going to have a hard time making hay with this.

So, in the end, is this important or unimportant? The truth is that I don't know. Luckily, we can use democracy to figure that out.


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