Big Labor cash induces Barack flip-flop

Hunger for forced-labor political money damages the reform-Democrat brand

Memo to: Barack Obama, Re: Campaign financing. This is one of those times when a candidate needs to be on the receiving end, instead of the dispensing end, of some straight talk. You have just jeopardized the excellent political brand - as the "candidate of change" - that you and your team spent long months crafting. It is the brand that won you widespread appeal across the political spectrum, as voters told pollsters that, now more than ever, they want a leader who can change the way Washington works -by making the government respond to the will of the people.

You had things lined up just right. But you blew a great opportunity when you announced you will become the first major party presidential candidate since Watergate to reject public financing of your general election campaign.

Your problem isn't your final decision but your explanation of it. You compromised candor when you should have told the whole truth about what you are doing and why you are doing it. You especially went wrong when you said in your video statement: "...the public financing of presidential elections as it exists today is broken, and we face opponents who've become masters at gaming this broken system."

The problem with this excuse is that you knew the system was every bit as broken last November, when you declared, in a written answer to a questionnaire from the Midwest Democracy Network: "If I am the Democratic nominee, I will aggressively pursue an agreement with the Republican nominee to preserve a publicly financed general election."

You're lucky that most journalists never bothered to cite the whole list of times you made that promise. Indeed, the Web site politico.com was the only one I saw that did do the basic journalism and listed your previous promises.

- You made the promise in a February op-ed in USA Today.

- Then, later, in the Feb. 26, debate in Cleveland, you repeated: "I will sit down with John McCain and make sure that we have a system that works for everybody."
n And on April 27, you told Fox News: "I have promised that I will sit down with John McCain and talk about, can we preserve a public system, as long as we are taking into account third-party, independent expenditures?"

People know all about those independent efforts (of the so-called 527 organizations) that will spend lavishly in excess of their $85-million campaign spending limit under public campaign financing. Everyone saw how the Vietnam veterans' Swift Boaters' television ads savaged John Kerry in 2004.

So why did you think it was okay to simply explain your recent decision by saying that the presidential public financing system was broken - as if this is a development that happened after all of your past promises?

By the way, so far, John McCain hasn't benefited big-time from these independent attack ads you warn about - but you have. Such as that TV ad paid for by the very liberal MoveOn.org and the AFSCME labor union featuring a mother holding her baby as she denounces McCain and his Iraq policy. In your spirit of all candor, all the time, no doubt you'll be condemning that ad any day now.

- Martin Schram is a Scripps Howard News Service columnist.


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