Money see, money do

Column by Chris Graham

At first glance, it doesn’t make sense to me that Barack Obama could stand to gain any traction at all with voters with his stance on not accepting campaign contributions from PACs and lobbyists.

But as my friend Steve Farnsworth points out, correctly, Obama could stand to lose some support among voters for whom doing the right thing is a key issue by not toeing the line as he has.

“In the case of Obama, one of his main campaign themes is that he’s a different kind of politician. And accepting PAC money would suggest that he’s one of these same-old, same-old politicians that people have gotten tired of,” said Farnsworth, a political-science professor at the University of Mary Washington.

Viewed in that light, Obama pretty much has to forego any PAC and lobbyist money to continue to be able to make his case to the voters. But there is another factor at play here, in the form of his once-maverick GOP opponent, John McCain, “who among Republicans has been the premier Republican in terms of campaign-finance reform and trying to clean up the role of money in politics,” Farnsworth said.

“I think for most people there is a general feeling that politics isn’t as clean as it should be. And so I think candidates who offer up an image of being cleaner than their opponents have an advantage. And I think that’s a reason why both McCain and Obama are the nominees,” Farnsworth said.

“I also think, though, that for most people it doesn’t make much difference, unless there’s a stark contrast. With McCain, who is one of the more reform-oriented Republicans, and Obama, who is one of the more reform-oriented Democrats, you’re not going to see the same kind of distinction that you would see if Obama were running against, say, George W. Bush, who has been far less supportive of campaign-finance reform than McCain has been,” Farnsworth said.

Offering another perspective on Obama, McCain and campaign finance is another friend, Quentin Kidd, who thinks Obama has something to gain with his stand on the money game.

“By Barack Obama saying, I’m not going to take PAC money, he’s exposing a weakness in John McCain, and that’s that John McCain has lobbyists on his campaign team,” said Kidd, a political-science professor at Christopher Newport University.

“I think there is something to this that does resonate with voters – and that is, I’m not of Washington, I’m not from Washington, and John McCain is. And that plays into the larger campaign strategy of change,” Kidd said. “His message is change, and change that is going to move in a better-slash-different direction. So if you can label McCain as being like everybody else in Washington, and you can use lobbyists’ money as part of your message-carrier, then it makes sense for him to do that. Especially because it has no effect on his ability to raise money.”
Farnsworth differs with Kidd on this issue, suggesting that the positions of Obama and McCain on money “aren’t going to be very big this election cycle.”

“The people in making decisions about Obama and McCain aren’t going to be making decisions on the very small differences between their perspectives on campaign-finance policies. There are many, many bigger issues in this election – Iran, Iraq, the economy, gasoline prices, the deficit, you name it. All of these are much, much more significant than the minute differences at best between the two candidates on campaign-finance reform,” Farnsworth said.

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