Obama: Pragmatic or hypocritical?

Presumed Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama’s decision to turn down public campaign financing is disappointing to many Americans who favor campaign-finance reform. But does it make him a hypocrite?

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., thinks so and said as much on the June 22 edition of NBC’s "Meet the Press." In fact, Graham seemed dismayed and personally disillusioned to discover that an American politician could say that he planned to do one thing and then, in the light of new circumstances, could change his mind and do another, in order to gain something as trivial as political advantage.

On the June 29 edition of that program, Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota said that Obama’s book, "The Audacity of Hope," should be renamed "The Audacity of Hypocrisy."

And on June 20, New York Times columnist David Brooks pictured a schizophrenic Obama: "On the one hand, there is Dr. Barack, the high-minded, Niebuhr-quoting speechifier," and on the other, "Fast Eddie Obama, the promise-breaking, tough-minded Chicago pol." Split personality No. 2 will do anything for a vote.

In fact, in this version, Obama is, essentially, a lying hypocrite, as are, apparently, the media and the activists, who care about campaign-finance reform, Brooks says, only when the Republicans are ahead in the money race.

Eventually, Brooks offers the Illinois senator a little backhanded praise, suggesting that perhaps his tough-minded opportunism will be useful if he has to confront the likes of Vladimir Putin. This represents an interesting contrast with the conventional Republican narrative, which tends to picture Obama as naive and inexperienced.

Some experts think that the campaign-finance issue doesn’t have much traction either way: on one hand, some say, the advantage that Obama will gain by relying on privately raised campaign funds will be minimal; on the other, by the time the election rolls around voters will not be particularly concerned about how the campaign funds were raised.

But this election gives every indication of being a close one. Both sides will deploy the hardest of hardballs, and every advantage, no matter how minimal, may count. In fact, we might have preferred that Obama be more straightforward about his decision, to say that even though he favors campaign-finance reform, the landscape has changed. There’s a close election coming up and what he favors or doesn’t favor is meaningless if he isn’t elected.

Instead, Obama made himself vulnerable to criticism by depicting his decision to turn down public financing as part of an effort to generate the extra money that he’ll need to defend himself from the ads of so-called "527" political groups that he expects from Republicans this fall. Democrats can produce their own 527s, of course, but Obama is probably more vulnerable to these ads than presumed Republican presidential nominee John McCain, given his multiple points of potential attack — his race, his unusual middle name, his wife, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and so on.

After all, the 527 knives were honed and wielded effectively by Republicans in 2004; they managed to transform John Kerry from war hero to coward and traitor. Obama’s concern about their undue impact on his chances for election is entirely rational.

Many may have preferred that Obama hew more strictly to principle. But there’s principle, and then there’s political calculation; either way, Obama is taking a chance in a very chancy and unforgiving enterprise. It’s naive self-deception to imagine that nearly any politician that we’ve heard of — including McCain, the senator from Arizona — wouldn’t do more or less the same thing. And it’s hard for a politician to argue otherwise without quickly sounding self-righteous and sanctimonious.

Obama may deserve some criticism, but maybe we should lighten up on the accusations of hypocrisy. His decision may have been unsavory, but it’s worth remembering that in politics, whether it’s a good thing or not, principle is often tempered with pragmatism.

Consider Groucho Marx, who once said, "Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them … well, I have others."

But, you ask, would I want Groucho Marx for president? We’ve done worse.


(John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. E-mail him at jcrisp(at)delmar.edu.)