Money colors the presidential campaign

Sen. Barack Obama decides to forgo public campaign financing, eliciting understandable outrage. And the wives are no longer off-limits, whether the candidates like it or not.
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Sen. Barack Obama decides to forgo public campaign financing, eliciting understandable outrage. And the wives are no longer off-limits, whether the candidates like it or not.

The big presidential-campaign news this weekend concerned political money. Otherwise, pre-political-convention sparring continued between the campaigns of the two major-party nominees.

  • Sen. Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign, it turns out, is $22.5 million in the red at the end of the primary and caucus contests. That is big money but a manageable debt, considering that Clinton remains a senator from New York, with access to big financial- and business-community hitters, and that Sen. Barack Obama almost surely will cooperate in helping her pay off her debt before November. Clinton is rallying her major campaign donors to solicit their contributions to Obama. The favor will be returned.
  • The other big money news came with Obama's declaration that he was renouncing public funding in the general campaign and would rely instead on private contributions. That involved a big turnaround for Obama who, since entering the U.S. Senate, had made campaign-finance reform his centerpiece issue and who earlier had pledged to rely on public financing this fall. Sen. John McCain, the putative Republican nominee, erupted at Obama's announcement, claiming the two earlier had agreed to rely on public money. (McCain will, indeed, rely on public financing.)

Campaign-finance reform groups, and some media, reacted as McCain did, charging Obama with a hypocritical flip-flop. Fact is, it was a flip-flop, but the same one McCain would have made had he determined that he could raise more private money than would be forthcoming in public funds.

Will the flip-flop hurt Obama? Probably not. Voters historically have shown themselves to be remarkably disinterested in "process" issues such as campaign-finance reform. Mainly they are concerned, in any presidential campaign, with bigger questions regarding the candidates' characters and qualifications, as well as their positions on war-peace and economic issues.

Candidate wives get attention

Michelle Obama and Cindy Hensley both have begun attracting negative comment on political blogs — Obama for her alleged haughtiness and political correctness; Hensley for her alleged wealthy arrogance and refusal to publicly release family financial data.

Sens. Obama and McCain both have done their best to declare their wives "off limits" in campaign debate. But times have changed, and it appears inevitable that non-traditional media will continue to press hard and that the coverage then will leak into mainstream media. Both wives have been at their husbands' sides, or pursuing active schedules of their own, during the campaign season. Both are being staffed and prepped so as not to make misstatements which could be exploited by the opposition.

The spouses' vulnerabilities are clear. Michelle Obama's famous statement that "she had never been proud of America" until her husband's candidacy is one she will not be able to shake off. Yet she concedes her Ivy League and legal educations, and big-money position in an establishmentarian Chicago law firm, might not have been available to her without affirmative-action policies, which overrode her prior academic record.

Hensley is heiress to a beer-distributorship fortune. Her late father, who built the company, had a criminal record and a long association with Kemper Marley, a wealthy Arizonan linked to shady activity in the state. The Hensleys underwrote McCain's political career and provided his principal income after he married Hensley and established Arizona residence. Withholding McCain/Hensley financial records will prove increasingly difficult.

Policy debate still pending

Both Obama and McCain have by now staked out positions on principal issues which reflect the liberal and conservative views of activist single-issue and single-interest groups within their parties.

Obama, who began his campaign as a non-confrontational unifier who would reach across party and ideological lines, might have struck a continuing independent posture had he defeated Clinton in early primary contests, as it initially appeared he might. Not having done so, however, he soon adopted postures on trade policy, education policy, energy policy, immigration, and other issues which would not allow Clinton to outflank him in competing for core Democratic constituencies. Thus, he is headed toward the general-election season with a platform not greatly distinguishable from that of Sen. John Kerry in 2004. Entering 2008, Obama's voting record was rated the most liberal in the Senate. He has returned to that conventional liberal platform.

McCain, who found success in 2000 running as a maverick independent in Republican primaries against then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush, still presents himself as a prickly independent, but his substantive platform is now just as conventionally conservative as Obama's is liberal. He was not the favored candidate of the Republican mainstream or key GOP constituencies during the nominating season. In fact, there is a good case to be made that former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, rather than McCain, would have been nominated had Republicans chosen their nominee by a proportional-representation system, as Democrats do, rather than in winner-take-all primaries.

Thus Obama, the healing independent, and McCain, the more rough-edged independent, have given way to an Obama and McCain who will advocate their parties' traditional positions this fall on foreign and domestic issues across the board.

That is not all bad. Their debate will present us with clear choices and options for 2009, with Obama standing for more government intervention domestically and less abroad, McCain the opposite.

The forum for their debates is yet to be determined. McCain had proposed, but Obama rejected, a series of town-hall meetings in which the two would go one-on-one without media or other interlocutors. He proposed that they begin now. Instead, three or four nationally-televised debates, following the more normal media-moderated format, are likely to take place during September and October.

With Obama and McCain having adopted more traditional partisan positions, polling data show moderate and independent voters undecided between them. Obama, at this point, still leads most national polls by anywhere from 3 percent to 10 percent. That reflects the general Democratic and "time for a change" tide running throughout the country. But voters do not cast their presidential votes as they do their congressional, state, and local votes. It is still far too early to predict an Obama victory, although he will be the favorite on Labor Day, when the general-election campaign formally begins.

Remember, too, that unforeseen events could change everything. What if, between now and November, another 9/11-type attack were to take place on American soil? That would boost McCain. What if today's financial and economic influenza were to become pneumonia? That would favor Obama. And, of course, there are the two vice-presidential nominees yet to be selected. Until we know their identities, it will be impossible to foretell their impacts on the election.

What if McCain were to become ill, thus emphasizing his age? What if Obama were to be tied more deeply to radical figures and views than he has been to date? You catch the drift.

Footnote: I received earlier this week, as I presume many others did, a long, quasi-scholarly memorandum prepared by a researcher in Clinton's homestate of New York. It argued that Obama, as Adlai Stevenson in 1956, should create excitement and serve democracy by throwing open at the Democrats' August convention in Denver the contest for the vice-presidential nomination. (Tennessee Sen. Estes Kefauver narrowly defeated Mass. Sen. John Kennedy for that position in 1956.) An interesting notion which has almost zero chance of taking place. Obama will want to have selected his own No. 2 well in advance of Denver.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk has been active in national policy and politics since 1961, serving in the White House and State Department and as policy director of several Democratic presidential campaigns. He is author of Heroes, Hacks and Fools and numerous essays in national publications. You can reach him in care of