Commentary Magazine


Obama’s Limit

Of course Barack Obama wants a voluntary limit on presidential campaign spending! He’s already famous and the author of two books.

In his filing to the Federal Election Commission last week, Obama shrouded his intention to follow Hillary Clinton and John Edwards in abandoning public financing of his campaign in a humble-sounding plan to limit spending in the general election. In his filing, which the New York Times quickly hailed as “an unusual challenge to his rivals,” Obama suggested that, if nominated, he might reach an accord with the Republican nominee to return private donations and rely only on the approximately $85 million available from federal funding sources.

Don’t be fooled by such false gestures of public-spiritedness. Senators running for president—especially those who have won as much attention as Obama—always favor limits out of sheer self-interest: spending limits restrict their less well-known opponents. If Senator Obama were to become the Democratic nominee and face, say, former Governor Romney, he would begin the general election campaign with a tremendous advantage.

Prominent Senators, by virtue of their proximity to the day-to-day Washington debate, have a much easier time of developing a national identity and reputation. They are fixtures on the Sunday talk shows. They offer sound bites to the press on any current controversy. They deliver long speeches on C-SPAN whenever they like. Most ex-governors—or almost anyone else running for President—have to spend millions of dollars during the early months of the campaign just to catch up, introducing themselves to the large swath of the country that barely pays attention to the primaries. The kind of public spending limit Obama proposes tilts the odds in favor of those who already have a household name.

There is another weakness of public financing that the New York Times curiously neglects to mention: it gives much more power to the news media. In a universe of strict spending limits, candidates don’t have enough money for advertising, phone banks, and direct mail. Suddenly newspaper editors and TV producers become the arbiters of how much the public learns about the candidates—which would be just fine, one imagines, with a certain media darling from the state of Illinois.