Last week, I noted an effort by Barack Obama, early in his candidacy, to envelop himself in a McCain-Feingold good government aura. With his success in fundraising, Obama hasn’t exactly been eager to join John McCain at the pulpit.
I propose a meaningful agreement in good faith that results in real spending limits. The candidates will have to commit to discouraging cheating by their supporters; to refusing fundraising help to outside groups; and to limiting their own parties to legal forms of involvement. And the agreement may have to address the amounts that Senator McCain, the presumptive nominee of his party, will spend for the general election while the Democratic primary contest continues.
Mr. Obama knows Republican 527 groups are scooping up cash and will soon unleash it to Mr. McCain’s advantage. He knows Mr. McCain’s greatest asset is the next few months, when he’ll be able to define himself and his opponents while Democrats slap away at each other. So Mr. Obama is proposing a new ethical challenge to Mr. McCain, one that conveniently hobbles his rival. You can call this savvy, and it might reassure voters who’ve wondered if Mr. Obama has the fists to tangle with the big boys. But you can’t call it high-minded or visionary.
Further, as Strassel notes, public financing of the general election is actually a pretty good deal for both candidates, permitting them to spend over a million a day (that is, roughly what Obama raised in January). So he’s using the threat of his prowess as a fundraiser to try to get McCain to agree to slow down his general election campaigning until the Democratic race has been settled.
I’d add this: Obama would probably love to turn the Democratic 527 volume down in the general election. It’s harder to sound like a post-partisan candidate when moveon.org and the Soros-funded groups are yelling so loudly. So long as no one touches GOTV activities, he’s happy.
Another thing that’s noteworthy in all this is that McCain has his own FEC problems, centering on a bank loan the McCain campaign took out late last year. He is in the process of being hoist by his own petard.
McCain’s position would be strongest if he could get FEC permission to withdraw from public financing, permission that in principle would be forthcoming, if the FEC had a quorum. But Senate Democrats, led by Barack Obama and Russ Feingold, are holding up three other FEC nominees because of their objections to a fourth. To keep McCain on the hook, they only have to sit on their hands. Or if the Bush Administration tries to help McCain out by withdrawing the objectionable nominee, Senate Democrats only have to move s-l-o-w-l-y, er, deliberately, to restore the ranks of the FEC.
Bush’s people probably ought to sacrifice their nominee, press the Dems to act quickly, and strongly suggest the impropriety of the presumptive Democratic nominee making it hard for the "clean government" FEC to do its job.
And McCain ought to learn his lesson, conveniently drawn for him by Strassel:
As two believers in complex campaign-finance laws, Mr. McCain and Mr. Obama helped create a system that now requires both to engage in games over 527 spending and tax subsidies. If they really believed in better government, they’d call for a system in which donors can give what they want, so long as it is transparent. That’s called having faith in your citizens, and it would be change we could believe in.