During a political campaign, there are certain verbs you never want to see in a newspaper headline anywhere near your candidate's name.
Among the more obvious are arrested, indicted or convicted. But almost as bad are fudge, flip-flop and waffle. That's exactly what Illinois Sen. Barack Obama is being accused of by reformers, editorial writers and disappointed admirers in his retreat from his crystal-clear assurance, given just three months earlier to the Midwest Democracy Network, that as Democratic presidential nominee, he would forgo private fundraising, if his major opponent agreed to do the same, and participate in the public financing system.
But now as his campaign - already with a history-making 1 million individual contributors - breaks new money-raising records almost hourly, Obama, undoubtedly urged on by his fundraising team and political advisors, appears to be yielding to the enticing prospect of being able to outraise and outspend Republican John McCain in the fall campaign by two or even three to one.
First, his campaign spokesman told The Associated Press that this was not a pledge Obama had made. It was instead an "option" that remains "on the table." Now Obama, himself, does "not expect that a workable, effective agreement (on spending limits between the two major nominees) will be reached overnight."
Why the pessimism now? "The campaign-finance laws are complex and filled with loopholes that can render meaningless any agreement that is not solidly constructed."
McCain's bona fides as a campaign finance reformer are second to none. But Obama sounds an awful lot like the old Washington-can't-do attitude he has been persuasively crusading against.
Under the law, the Democratic and Republican presidential nominees would each receive $85 million in public funds by the first week in September. For a candidate committed to ending the rule of government by deep-pocketed special interests, the banishing of private money from the presidential general election campaign is an indispensably invaluable first step.
We are at the point in the election year when voters are getting to know and to evaluate those who have a realistic chance of becoming the next president. For Obama, this is an easy promise, totally within his own control, to keep. In a spirit of fairness, he would be agreeing to a level playing field where the Democratic and Republican campaigns would have financial parity.
Are we now to find out that the Democrats had endorsed public financing of presidential campaigns in past years only because otherwise the Republicans could and did outraise them, but now in a year when they suddenly have the major dollar advantage, the Democrats' commitment to public funding is not a principled belief? Instead, was it a cute political tactic that has become now an inconvenience to be scrapped?
Obama, by limiting his campaign to public funds, is in no danger of disarming unilaterally. He will continue to be able to tap his growing army of contributors to donate to the Democratic Party and to Democratic congressional candidates.
If there is one unmistakable message from voters in this remarkable year, it is this: We want our government back! That means ending the unhealthy influence of moneyed interests. And that is what public financing is all about.
John McCain is on board. Will Barack Obama keep or break his word on public financing? The answer to that question will tell us volumes about what kind of a president the Illinois Democrat would be.
To find out more about Mark Shields and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at www.creators.com.
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COPYRIGHT 2008 MARK SHIELDS