EDITORIAL: When Pragmatism Trumps Principle
Call it situation ethics. That is, the situation that Sen. Barack Obama finds himself in has prompted him to rethink his ethics.
Or so his enemies can gleefully portray it.
Every presidential candidate since the Watergate days of the 1970s has opted to accept public financing of his general election campaign, as opposed to taking whatever he can pry loose from private donors. Democrat Obama himself, recognizing the evils that can flow from no-holds-barred private funding, earlier promised that he would "aggressively pursue" an agreement with his Republican counterpart, Sen. John McCain, under which both would pursue public financing.
Last year, when he was just another candidate getting ready to head into the primary season and must have had no idea that his campaign would catch fire as it now has, Obama told the Federal Election Commission that public financing "would serve core purposes in the public interest" by "limiting the escalation of campaign spending."
That was then; this is now.
A New Standard?
The current fund-raising situation in which Obama finds himself is such that, if he decided to jump ship and break his promise, the odds are that he could amass a campaign chest adding up to hundreds of millions of dollars by November -- compared to the "measly" total of $85 million he (like McCain) could get if he stayed on the public-financing reservation.
The decision, which Obama said "was not an easy one," was expected by many observers, who predicted that the temptation to keep the funding floodgates open would eventually prove irresistible. If just about any other candidate were making it, the decision might not be as disillusioning as many of Obama's more idealistic followers will surely find it.
But Obama is not just any other candidate. He has inspired millions of voters -- especially younger ones -- by setting a new standard for himself, eschewing political business-as-usual, and promising a campaign of "change" that would sweep through Washington like a breath of fresh air.
Just Take the Money
An argument can be made -- and Obama has made it -- that he will need all the money he can get his hands on to counter the inevitable swift-boatings that he can expect to endure at the hands of private Republican "527" groups that can do the McCain campaign's dirty work without being formally tied to it.
The Obama camp has made a pragmatic decision -- the same one that the uninspiring McCain would probably have made if he, too, had found his campaign awash in money pouring in from millions of enthusiastic followers.
But at least Obama could have couched his decision in those terms and let it go at that: We need all that private cash too badly to pass it up. Sorry for going back on my word. Besides, look at all the money we're saving the taxpayers.
Instead, he has tried to make the thing sound like a noble decision motivated by deeply felt principle. "This is our moment, and our country is depending on us," he said in his video. "So join me, and declare your independence from this broken system, and let's build the first general election campaign that's truly funded by the American people."
Hmm. You might be better off just taking the money and running.
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