Barack Obama's decision to reject public campaign funding was based on pragmatism, not principle. If it was truly principled, if his main reason was, as he said, because the system is "broken," he would have been working to fix it from the start. Instead, he first said he would accept the funds and work with Republicans to craft an agreement that made restrictions meaningful. He never seriously pursued this.
Obama's decision seemed motivated by one thing his impressive ability to raise money through the Internet. He raised $263 million during his primary race, and much of it came from online donations. Obama tends to overstate this, saying at times that 90 percent of these donors contributed $100 or less. The Center for Responsive Politics (www.opensecrets.org) has a breakdown of contributions that doesn't quite match those claims. It found that 45 percent of Obama's donors contributed $200 or less.
Still, that is an impressive figure. McCain can claim only 24 percent of his money from that category. Obama has redefined the world of fundraising into one in which average people can click a button and contribute some loose change to a candidate they believe best represents their beliefs. But there is little reason to believe this new world will lead to cleaner elections or to less influence from large special-interest donors.
The flaws of public funding have less to do with all the peripheral ways candidates can find influence the so-called 527 groups that buy attack ads separate from official campaigns and much to do with the fallacies of spending limits themselves.
Money buys speech and influence. The only way to end the swift-boat style of attack ads would be to pass laws that prohibit people from forming groups unaffiliated with candidates but that wish to campaign on behalf of the candidate or a particular issue. That sort of law would conflict with the Constitution's guarantee of free speech.
By rejecting public funding and its $84.1 million spending limit, Obama has guaranteed that spending will escalate during this race for the White House. That may or may not be a bad thing, but his reasons seem to have little to do with a desire to change the world of campaigning.