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The Audacity of a Broken Promise

By Ruth Marcus

When in the course of political events it becomes advantageous for a presidential candidate to dissolve a campaign promise, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that the candidate at least refrain from wrapping himself in the Declaration of Independence.

Not Barack Obama.

Click on Obama's campaign Web site and you'll find a virtual parchment scroll, complete with running tally of how many "citizens have declared their independence from a broken system by supporting the first presidential campaign truly funded by the people."

Written as " the PEOPLE," in that familiar, evocative style -- and with a July 4 deadline for signing up.

So Obama isn't just junking his campaign pledge to participate in the public financing system if his opponent agreed to do the same. He isn't just becoming the first presidential candidate since Watergate to run a campaign fueled entirely by private money.

No, he deserves praise for this selfless -- scratch that, patriotic-- move.

"Our opponents are dedicated to manipulating this broken system to raise as much money as possible -- and they've proven they are very good at it," Obama's site declares. No mention that Obama's been pretty good at it himself, raising $295 million to John McCain's $122 million. "To compete" -- as if he wouldn't be competitive otherwise -- "Barack has decided to keep putting his faith in ordinary people like you giving only what you can afford."

Ordinary people, that is, if your definition of ordinary people includes bundlers who can collect six- and even seven-figure sums for your campaign. Because even as he was rhapsodizing in public about "the grass-roots values that have already changed our politics and brought us this far," Obama was privately cozying up to Hillary Clinton's major fundraisers.

Earlier this month, he dispatched his campaign manager, David Plouffe, to woo Clinton bundlers in Washington and New York. This week, Clinton will introduce Obama to nearly 200 of her major bundlers, including some who have raised $1 million or more, in a meeting at the Mayflower Hotel.

"This group could represent 50 million, if not 100 million, bucks," said one top Clinton strategist.

Their money is central to Obama's bet that he will do better raising money on his own than taking the $84 million in public financing for the general election. The Obama campaign is aiming to bring in another $300 million for the candidate -- $200 million of that from smaller donations, $100 million from the big players -- plus $150 million for the Democratic Party, much of which would also come in big contributions.

Donors can give $2,300 each to Obama's primary and general election campaigns. So can their spouses. Each can also give $28,500 to the party. So you and your spouse are welcome to write a check totaling $66,200. So much for the campaign truly funded by "ordinary people."

The Obama campaign likes to point out that 93 percent of its 3 million contributions have been $200 or less; nearly half have been $25 or less. Those numbers are impressive, and they reflect a healthier mix of small donors than the McCain and Clinton campaigns. But they are also misleading. One-third of Obama's cash has come in the form of contributions of $1,000 or more. Even in the age of the Internet, those don't tend to arrive courtesy of the Check Fairy. Bundlers help.

I don't take issue with Obama's decision to opt entirely out of the public financing system. That was bound to happen eventually. Obama is smart to exploit his fundraising advantage over McCain. The political price of his about-face will be negligible. Likewise, I don't begrudge Obama his bundlers -- or Clinton's bundlers, for that matter.

What's galling is Obama's effort to portray himself through this entire episode as somehow different from, and purer than, the ordinary politician. Different might have been coupling the announcement with a self-imposed limit on the size of donations. Different might have been -- it could still be -- taking the big checks but acknowledging that, since bundlers will be bringing in even bigger hauls, disclosure should be adjusted accordingly, to reveal not only who raised $200,000 but also who brought in $500,000, who $1 million.

Obama's not the first politician to break a promise. He may be the first to do so in the guise of John Hancock, exuberantly signing the Declaration.

(c) 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

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