WASHINGTON — Thursday's decision by presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama to forgo public money for his general election is not only a huge blow to the Watergate-era campaign finance system, but it could hurt the Democratic nominee's effort to paint himself as a reformer.
Obama became the first major White House hopeful to reject public money, which would have amounted to $84.1 million for the two-month fall campaign.
His decision was undoubtedly motivated by his fundraising prowess — Obama is on the verge of shattering President Bush's 2004 primary season donation records of $269.6 million.
But the Illinois senator, whose campaign mantra has been reform and change, has now put himself in the position of being the candidate who lit the match that allowed the ailing public financing system to finally implode.
"For him to go outside this framework leaves him open to charges of hypocrisy," said Brad Coker, managing partner of Mason-Dixon Research, a polling firm. "It gives his opponent a stick to hit him with."
Obama's announcement drew prompt criticism from Joan Claybrook and Fred Wertheimer, the heads of campaign finance watchdog groups, each saying in statements that they were "very disappointed" with the decision.
"This is a frontal assault on the campaign finance system in order to reap a significant advantage over John McCain," added Lawrence Jacobs, director of the University of Minnesota's Center for Politics and Governance. McCain is the presumptive Republican nominee.
Obama portrayed his decision to break his pledge to take public money as an attempt to change a "broken" system riddled with special-interest money.
But Jacobs said the Democratic candidate is "practicing the old game of politics in Washington" in a move that could signal "the collapse of campaign finance rules for presidential elections."
The public financing system, created after the Watergate scandals that plagued the 1972 presidential election, has been ailing for years.
Even as candidates of both parties accepted public funding beginning in 1976, they circumvented the system by raising hundreds of millions of dollars for the national Democratic and Republican parties.
After President Clinton helped the Democratic National Committee raise $131 million to aid his 1996 re-election, he had to contend with a scandal over the use of overnight stays in the White House's Lincoln Bedroom and coffees with the president to attract DNC donors.
Still, every major party candidate has accepted the fall election money, allowing them to boast they were concentrating on issues and strategy without having to beg for money.
The public does not generally pay close attention to such distinctions and the federal financing issue itself is "not a big deal," said Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.
But, he said, "If Obama's opponents and the news media are able to create a doubt in the voters' minds about whether Obama is really a reformer, that could be detrimental to his campaign."
Adding to Obama's problem, pollster Coker said, is McCain's longstanding reformer image. He fought for years, usually against fellow Republicans, to finally win enactment of the 2002 law banning so-called "soft money" — unlimited donations, even from corporate and union treasuries, that could be used for voter mobilization and party-building efforts.
McCain pounced quickly Thursday. Jill Hazelbaker, his communications director, said Obama's decision proved that he's "just another typical politician who will do and say whatever is most expedient for Barack Obama."
"The true test of a candidate for president is whether he will stand on principle and keep his word to the American people," Hazelbaker said in a written statement. "Barack Obama has failed that test today, and his reversal of his promise to participate in the public finance system undermines his call for a new type of politics."
Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Ct., who sponsored the House version of McCain's soft money ban, said that he doesn't think Obama's decision will wreck the public financial system, but that it raises questions about the Democrat's honesty.
"Given the incredible amount of money he's raised, not just from large donors, I understand his wanting to forgo it," Shays said. "The problem is, he said he would do public financing. He said one thing in the process of getting nominated. Now he's doing another."
Obama last year had a direct answer for the citizen's lobby Common Cause when it posed this question to him: "If you are nominated for president in 2008 and your major opponents agree to forgo private funding in the general election campaign, will you participate in the presidential public financing system?"
"Yes," Obama said. "If I am the Democratic nominee, I will aggressively pursue an agreement with the Republican nominee to preserve a publicly financed general election."
Obama's spokesmen said Thursday they met briefly with McCain representative Trevor Potter but got nowhere. Obama counsel Robert Bauer called the session "thin gruel."
Potter fired back, saying that there were no serious discussions.
He said he met with Bauer about 10 days ago, and "he asked me what Senator McCain's position was on public funding in the general election, and I responded that the senator was in favor of it and hoped both candidates would participate."
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Obama's announcement of his decision.
Obama's 2007 comments on public financing.