Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Obama and the Price of Victory

Thinking about Barack Obama's choice to forgo public funding, I find myself flashing back to Howard Roark's reminder about the limitations of altruism: "Before you can do things for people, you must be the kind of man who can get things done."

The admonition seems reasonable enough in its own context. But what about this conundrum? Is Obama demonstrating himself to be a hard-nosed, steely-eyed leader who can tackle the realities of a dangerous world? Or is he simply selling out his ideals for cheap political advantage?

I've thought about these questions while listening to the arguments floated by his supporters (a number of whom, like Joe Biden, appear to be suppressing a gag reflex while defending their party's new leader). Their excuses are predictable.

Sure, Obama has flip-flopped on his previous promises to stay within the public funding system. But McCain has enough flip-flops to open a surf shop.

Sure, Obama has enough funding to weather any attacks the GOP can throw at him. But remember the threat of 527-groups who sunk John Kerry's campaign. They're not limited by public financing, and they'll stop at nothing.

Sure, Obama has enough money to melt the moral compass of the Dalai Lama, and more checks pile up every day. But individual contributions are so small as to preclude the risk of corruption.

Reasonable points, I suppose. But the simplest and most basic point is this: Obama said he would stick with public funding, he said he'd work within that constraint, and now he's breaking his word.

That decision comes at two costs.

First, he's opened himself up unnecessarily to accusations of the most naked form: Obama can't be trusted. GOP attackers can merely edit their posters from "Hillary Clinton will do anything to get elected" to "Barack Obama will do anything to get elected." No surprise there.

More importantly, Barack Obama has set back the cause of finance reform by removing his own foundation to improve the work. We can hardly take him seriously when he pledges to change Washington while affirming its worst credo: money talks.

His supporters retort, as did Roark, how can Obama change things until he's in the position to affect them? OK, that makes sense. But Roark knew something else too. He knew that some goods come at too high a price.

I haven't abandoned my hope for Obama. We could do much worse. But I'm more wary than I was.

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