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Obama should honor public-funding promise

AS A CAMPAIGN topic, the issue of whether Sen. Barack Obama committed plagiarism by repeating well-known phrases that Gov. Deval Patrick also used in a speech isn’t worth writing home about. We agree with Sen. Obama that this is a nonissue, given the brevity of the passage and his friendship with Gov. Patrick. More serious, however, is Sen. Obama’s newfound ambiguousness about accepting public financing for the general election in November. It calls into question his bona fides as the self-appointed candidate of reform.

Last March, a spokesman for Obama said that if the senator became the nominee, “he will aggressively pursue an agreement with the Republican nominee to preserve a publicly financed general election.” To remove doubt, Obama wrote in reply to a campaign questionnaire last November: “If I am the Democratic nominee, I will aggressively pursue an agreement with the Republican nominee to preserve a publicly financed general election.”

That sure sounds like a pledge. But now that Sen. John McCain, the expected Republican nominee, is calling upon Obama to live up to it, the Democratic senator from Illinois is having second thoughts.

His campaign spokesman, Bill Burton, has called it “an option we wanted on the table” but added: “There is no pledge.”

This kind of parsing is particularly disappointing from a candidate who claims to stand for a new way of doing things in Washington. To the typical listener, it would appear that Obama made a commitment to accept public financing. If he has changed his mind, he should say so plainly instead of resorting to dodgy excuses.

Public funding for political campaigns was a major reform growing out of the Watergate scandals. Since the 1970s, no major party candidate has rejected public funds for the general election. Candidates who accept public funding this year are eligible for about $85 million, but Obama may be tempted to try to raise more because he has been pulling in the dollars from private contributors at a high rate — some $36 million in January alone.

Even so, accepting public financing — and thus rejecting private money — would be the right thing to do. It gives candidates the ability to spend more time with voters and less time trying to wheedle money from fat cats and private contributors. It eliminates the role of questionable sources of funding for candidates who may later find themselves beholden to unsavory special interests.

McCain, a champion of campaign-finance reform, has reiterated his intention to accept public financing if his Democratic opponent will do the same. The ball is now in Obama’s court.

This kind of parsing is

particularly disappointing from a candidate who claims to stand for a new way of doing things in Washington.

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