The 527 monster hiding under Obama's bed

Barack Obama justified opting out of public financing in part by citing the specter of independent GOP attack groups, but the threat is overblown.

Published June 20, 2008 3:59PM (EDT)

Let's get one thing straight right off the bat: Barack Obama was right to opt out of public financing for his campaign. Had he not done so, he would have limited himself to spending just over $80 million in the months leading up to November, compared with a potentially much larger amount he will be able to raise from his supporters. It would have been, at the very least, an attempted political suicide.

Still, the rationale he gave in the video in which he announced the move was, pure and simple, spin. And the facts in at least one part of his argument, which has since been picked up throughout the left, were -- at best -- questionable.

"We face opponents who've become masters at gaming this broken system," Obama said. "And we've already seen that [John McCain is] not going to stop the smears and attacks from his allies running so-called 527 groups, who will spend millions and millions of dollars in unlimited donations."

There will undoubtedly be some 527 groups that will take aim at Obama, and they will undoubtedly spend "millions and millions of dollars" on the effort. (Given the price of campaigning, any group that wants to have any real effect basically has to spend "millions and millions of dollars.")

But a true threat to Obama from these groups hasn't really materialized yet. And political observers are not confident that much of one will. In an article Friday, Politico's Jonathan Martin surveys the scene and notes, "The truth is that, less than five months before Election Day, there are no serious anti-Obama 527s in existence nor are there any immediate plans to create such a group." That some groups will arise, Martin does not dispute; but he adds that Republicans don't yet know who will organize that group or, more important, who will fund it. And for various reasons, the usual suspects don't seem eager to participate. The New York Times' Michael Luo and Jeff Zeleny came to a similar conclusion.

Moreover, despite Obama's efforts at discouraging some similar organizations on his own side, and some success in that area, the 527 groups with the biggest pockets have been on the left. That was even true in 2004. The right-wing Swift Boat Veterans for Truth may have gotten all the attention, but -- according to a table compiled by the Campaign Finance Institute -- in 2004, Democratic-leaning 527s outspent Republican-leaning 527s by more than $200 million. And some liberal advocacy groups and unions have said they will work as hard as ever this election. has already sponsored a pro-Obama ad, and it recently joined with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees for a spot that hit McCain on Iraq. More is on the way.

Obama would undoubtedly have taken at least some hit for the decision no matter how he explained it. In rejecting public financing without making a real attempt at hammering out a deal to do so with the cooperation of John McCain, he broke repeated promises, and Republicans wouldn't let him get away from that easily. But the true political cost seems small; campaign finance isn't an issue that has ever resonated deeply with too many voters, and it's hard to imagine that there'll be a lot of Americans who won't forgive him for choosing not to cripple his campaign. But there were more honest ways to explain the move.

My suggestion for one thing he could have said, taking off partially from First Read's: "I do not come lightly to a decision to break with my promises and one principle I hold dear. But there's more than just one principle at stake in this election, and I feel that I owe it to my supporters, who've worked so hard and given so much, and to the United States, which cannot afford a third Bush term, to do my utmost to win the presidency."

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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