Obama's Non-Promise Not Broken

07/02/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

This week, one attack by John McCain on Barack Obama has become an article of unquestioned faith repeatedly declared in the mainstream media: that Obama broke a promise to accept public financing in the general election. There’s only problem with this claim by the press: it is demonstrably untrue and fully refuted by the facts. Yet the mainstream press has been nearly unanimous in falsely claiming that Obama had broken a promise to take public financing.

The New York Times wrote about his "decision to break an earlier pledge to take public money." NPR claimed, "Earlier, Obama had said he would participate in public financing if his Republican rival, Arizona Sen. John McCain, did the same." Chris Matthews on June 19 claimed it was "breaking his principles, breaking his word...It sounds like he’s changed his tune....Something he promised before." David Gregory on his MSNBC show on June 19 claimed it was a "broken pledge by Obama" and declared, "They had a deal." The New York Post headline was, "GOING BARACK ON HIS WORD."

A Wall Street Journal editorial called it a "flip-flop." That line of attack became particularly common: "It was a flip-flop of epic proportions," said Mark Shields on the Lehrer News Hour on June 20, and David Brooks added this it was "the low point of the Obama candidacy" and "epic hypocrisy."

CBS News reported that Obama "abandoned a campaign pledge." NBC News claimed that Obama "did promise to observe the limits if his opponent did." But the most extensive misinformation came from ABC World News. On June 19, Charles Gibson proclaimed, "This is a direct contradiction to what Obama said." George Stephanopoulos proclaimed this a "flip-flop" and added, "this is a clear flip." Continuing the same story for a second day, Gibson proclaimed at the opening of the ABC World News on June 20, "Flip-flop flack: Mounting criticism of Barack Obama for refusing public financing."

And according to ABC’s Jake Tapper, "Obama's stark abandonment of a pledge he repeatedly made during the Democratic primaries has dinged his reputation as a government reformer, and it clearly gave his critics ammunition to attack his character and paint him as a Democratic flip-flopper."

Even progressives fell into this trap. Rachel Maddow declared on June 20 that his stand was "a reversal from his previous position." Joan Walsh of proclaimed that Obama "flip-flopped on campaign finance law."(Race to the White House, June 20) Nick Baumann of Mother Jones wrote, "Obama is making a politically expedient decision and essentially going back on his ‘Yes’ answer to a questionnaire that asked whether he would forgo private financing if his opponents did the same."

So what’s the truth. Below is every single case I could find reporting in the media about Obama’s comments on public financing:

  1. Even in February 2007, before Obama’s massive fundraising became evident, Obama’s staffers were explicit in stating that public financing in the general election was an "option" and not a commitment.
  1. The March 2, 2007 New York Times reported Obama’s campaign saying that he would "aggressively pursue an agreement."

So from the very beginning, the Obama campaign stated over and over again that public financing in general election would require an extensive agreement that went beyond merely having both parties accept the funding.

  1. In response to a November 2007 questionnaire to the Midwest Democracy Network and Common Cause, Obama wrote: "My plan requires both major party candidates to agree on a fundraising truce, return excess money from donors, and stay within the public financing system for the general election....If I am the Democratic nominee, I will aggressively pursue an agreement with the Republican nominee to preserve a publicly financed general election."

No one could read this answer as suggesting that Obama would accept public financing under any condition. Obama explicitly "requires" a promise by the Republican to adopt a "fundraising truce"–meaning not using the parties or 527s as a way to cheat the system.

  1. In a December 23, 2007 speech in Iowa cited by ABC News on June 19 (a search on the internet and Lexis-Nexis finds no instances of the press reporting on this at the time) Obama said: "I wrote a letter to the FEC saying if my Republican opponent is willing to abide by public financing, I would abide by public financing as well...." At most, if this quote was not taken out of context (ABC News cuts off the end of it), it shows that Obama simply made a mistake in a speech that was never reported on by the press and which he was never asked to explain. Clearly, since his letter to the FEC never made any pledge like that, Obama was simply using an oversimplified explanation to a crowd in one case. No one can imagine that this misstatement amounted to a pledge.

  1. In a February 20, 2008 op-ed for USA Today, Obama explained that such an agreement would have to be carefully negotiated to produce  a meaningful agreement in good faith that results in real spending limits. The candidates will have to commit to discouraging cheating by their supporters; to refusing fundraising help to outside groups; and to limiting their own parties to legal forms of involvement. And the agreement may have to address the amounts that Senator McCain, the presumptive nominee of his party, will spend for the general election while the Democratic primary contest continues.
  1. At the Democratic Presidential Debate in Cleveland on February 26, Tim Russert asked Obama, "So you may opt out of public financing. You may break your word." Obama responded: "What I – what I have said is, at the point where I'm the nominee, at the point where it's appropriate, I will sit down with John McCain and make sure that we have a system that works for everybody."
  1. However, Obama’s promise meant speaking with McCain’s campaign, not necessarily McCain himself. Obama told reporters in February 2008, "If I am the nominee, then I will make sure our people talk to John McCain’s people to make sure we abide by the same rules....My folks will sit down and see whether we can arrive at common sense ground rules."

  1. During an April 27 appearance on Fox News, Obama declared, "I have promised that I will sit down with John McCain and talk about can we preserve a public system." Chris Wallace asked: "If you can get that agreement, you would go for a publicly financed campaign?" Obama: "What I don't intend to do is to allow huge amounts of money to be spent by the RNC, the Republican National Committee, or by organizations like the Swift Boat organization, and just stand there without – " Wallace: "But if you get that agreement?" Obama: "I would be very interested in pursuing public financing, because I think not every candidate is going to be able to do what I've done in this campaign, and I think it's important to think about future campaigns."

Obama has been completely consistent from the beginning of his campaign to now on public financing: He would only accept it if the Republicans were willing to meet his conditions for restraining spending by the parties and outside groups.

By contrast to Obama’s consistent commitment to his pledge, McCain’s campaign has shown a clear desire not meet Obama’s standards on campaign finance. As Media Matters noted, the mainstream press such as USA Today, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal failed to mention the fact that McCain, not Obama, had violated the campaign finance laws.

McCain has also indicated, both in words and actions, that he is unwilling to meet Obama’s standards. At the end of May, the Republican National Committee (aided by McCain’s joint fundraising) had almost $54 million, compared to $4 for the Democratic National Committee. McCain flip-flopped and endorsed a North Carolina Republican Party ad attacking Obama. And McCain opened the door for right-wing 527 attacks on Obama, declaring that "I can’t be a referee."

Unlike McCain, Obama asked independent groups to avoid creating 527s and on June 20 announced that it would close its 527 in accord with Obama’s wishes.

The Obama campaign was fully justified in concluding, after an satisfactory meeting between their lawyers, that McCain would not meet the conditions he has explained from the start. Perhaps Obama is guilty of not being aggressive enough in begging McCain to follow these rules, but that’s fundamentally different from violating an unconditional pledge to take public financing–a pledge that Obama never made, and a pledge that the media keep saying he has broken.

Why is the media repeating this lie over and over again?

One reason is the inability of the mainstream media to understand complexity. The notion that Obama could attach conditions to his support of public financing is deemed a cop-out, even if those conditions are entirely rational and consistently given. As Keith Olbermann (a rare exception to the media parade of conformity) noted on June 19 in criticizing Gibson and Stephanopoulos, "you guys have bigger IQs than that. Can't you read the whole paperwork?"

A second reason is the effectiveness of the right-wing in promoting the myth that the media are pro-Obama. This puts pressure on the press to find issues to attack Obama, even when they aren’t true.

A third reason is the "gotcha" mentality of the press toward political reformers. The media believe that anyone who calls for reform should be attacked more viciously than corrupt politicians because of the reformer’s "hypocrisy" and arrogance.

In reality, the media are helping McCain cover up a huge tactical error. McCain could have announced that he would take public financing and publicly agreed to Obama’s requirement for a "fundraising truce." Instead, he failed to push Obama, and embraced the Republican Party and right-wing 527s. McCain foolishly waited until Obama’s announcement, in order to attack Obama. In doing so, McCain lost his only hope for financial parity with Obama, who might have felt obligated to take public financing if McCain had been willing to meet all of the conditions.

Unable to gain a financial advantage by limiting the Obama campaign’s spending and using the Republican party and 527s to smear him, McCain this week turned to his only hope in this campaign: that the mainstream press will lie about Obama, ignore the misconduct of McCain, and help McCain win by misinformation. We can’t let the media get away with distortion of reality.

Read more at John K Wilson's DailyKos Diary