Political Hay

Revolutionary Sellout Redux

Obama's new politics sounds a lot like Howard Dean's old politics.

By 6.20.08

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We are the ones Barack Obama has been waiting for...to fund his campaign.

Such was the essence of the video message Obama supporters woke up to find in their e-boxes yesterday morning, the freshman senator from Illinois casually announcing he would forgo public funds (along with the accompanying spending cap) and urging viewers also to "declare your independence" -- by sending him money.

The first and most shameful effect of Obama's announcement, unfortunately, was to set Republican Party apparatchiks a-crowing from every rooftop about the moral necessity of campaign finance reform and public financing of campaigns, as the McCain camp bemoaned the "far-reaching and extraordinary consequences" of Obama's decision. Really, though, despite the attempt to update Jeffersonian rhetoric for Generation Emasculation -- sadly, raising one's own campaign money rather than hitting up the government apparently counts as bold insurrection in America, circa 2008 -- how revolutionary was Obama's move or the rhetoric accompanying it?

Not very, actually, to those who recall the grand emancipation of Dr. Howard Dean in the long-ago winter of twenty-ought-three, when the former Vermont Governor announced he was skipping out on public financing for the primary season with a press release entitled, "The Tea is in the Harbor," declaring the move as -- wait for it -- a "new Declaration of Independence."

Although Obama is the first candidate to skirt the sytem in the general election since Watergate, the similarities remain striking. Obama, while earnestly supporting "a robust system of public financing of elections," nonetheless has been forced to abandon his beautiful dream by those "who've become masters at gaming this broken system." In 2003 Dean, likewise, reminded perhaps confused supporters, "We support public financing, but the unabashed actions of this president to thwart our democratic processes with a flood of special interests money have us forced to abandon a broken system."

THERE IS NOTHING NEW under the sun, at least not when it comes to copping tired lines from old campaigns and backtracking to suit the needs of the moment. (See also Obama's positions on Iraq, gay rights and healthcare reform.) After all, as late as last November Obama insisted on a Common Cause questionnaire that he intended to "stay within the public financing system for the general election." Now flush with cash, Obama simply shrugs off the hypocrisy and says, "This is our moment and our country is depending on us." Don't question the hero when he's working his magic -- that's the old politics!

Repercussions? Don't hold your breath. Common Cause, a supposed watchdog group with the tagline "Holding Power Accountable," issued a press release slapping Obama with a minor "demerit" for betraying his word -- before celebrating him as a true "reformer" who has "excited record numbers of small donors to contribute and participate in the political process."

The free pass is no surprise. With the right enemies, anything is possible. Dean justified his own reversal as a necessary component of building "the only campaign that can stop [the] outrage" of a Bush campaign determined to sell "our democracy so they can crush their Democratic opponent." Suddenly his still-warm warning to John Kerry and John Edwards -- any move to forgo public financing would be "a huge issue. I think most Democrats believe in campaign finance reform," Dean had said -- became a lot less huge to Bush-addled liberals eager to be avenged.

Part of this process of muddying the principle waters is to foist a calculated campaign decision off on supporters as somehow something supporters had foisted on the candidate. Hence, before announcing he would kick off the next phase of the American Revolution by providing his campaign a little extra walking around money, Dean held a referendum on his website. Accept matching public financing or go it alone, the choice was his disciples' to make. Granted, Dean felt compelled to warn his flock that to accept federal matching funds was to accept that "the greatest grassroots movement in the history of presidential politics will be stopped from raising money almost immediately," and, thus, "the fate of this campaign rests in your hands, and I believe the future of our American democracy" rested on their decision. But, you know, just go ahead and do what you believe is right.

Ultimately, only 15 percent of participating Deaniacs voted to dismantle American democracy, spray Weed-B-Gone on the hero-blades of the grassroots movement and hand the election over to King George XLIII. The rest chose to fight on the side of angels, realizing, as has Obama, that they'd rather bring a gun to the Republicans' knife fight. A triumphant Dean could finally afford the thousands of orange knit caps and throat lozenges necessary for his "Perfect Storm" in Iowa. Barack Obama -- a different kind of politician, TM -- sees no need for a show election, but frames his announcement as if one had been conducted. "With this decision this campaign is in your hands in a way that no campaign has ever been before," he said. Exploiting a fundraising advantage becomes a noble sacrifice to the little people.

NOT THAT THERE IS any reason to believe there would have been much dissent if Obama had held a vote. Dean raised the specter of Bush, Crusher of Democrats, Destroyer of Democracy. (Come to think of it, how are we even having another election without President Dean at the helm?) Obama now takes the cue and invokes a John McCain, "fueled by contributions from Washington lobbyists and special interest PACs" -- cheaper than gas, one supposes -- unwilling to "stop the smears and attacks from his allies running so-called 527 groups, who will spend millions and millions of dollars in unlimited donations." It's a long enough string of ominous keywords to put any Obama enthusiasts with a troubled soul on their knees begging him to jettison public money. There will be time for beneficence when it's shining out from the Oval Office windows.

"When we've been told that we're not ready or that we shouldn't try or that we can't, generations of Americans have responded with a simple creed that sums up the spirit of a people," Obama declared after his New Hampshire primary loss. "Yes. We. Can."

So don't tell the slayer of an already dead dragon that he can't have all the money he wants.

Yes. He. Can.

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