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Tangled Web

It’s supremely ironic that one of the principal authors of campaign finance reform, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), and the would-be transformer of politics-as-usual, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), would both be caught up in controversies raising questions about their true dedication to reform.

McCain, the all-but-certain GOP nominee for president, wants to opt out of the public financing system for the 2008 presidential primaries. At the same time, he is assailing Obama for waffling on his pledge to abide by the system for the general election if the GOP nominee does.

McCain is in potential trouble because the chairman of the Federal Election Commission is raising questions about whether his campaign can legally break out of public financing limits because McCain may have used the prospect of public money receipts as collateral for a loan to keep his campaign alive during its doldrums days late last year.

The public financing system would allow McCain to spend only $54 million in the primaries and through the summer, leading up to the GOP convention in early September. McCain already has spent $49 million, so he’d have little on hand to battle a Democrat who had the ability to raise unlimited nonpublic funds over the summer.

Complicating this tangled web of a tale even further, however, the FEC is unable to enforce Chairman David Mason’s challenge because four of its six seats are vacant and two nominations are hanging in limbo because one of them, that of Republican Hans von Spakovsky, is being blocked by a group of Democratic Senators including … Barack Obama.

So, it appears that McCain will be able to spend as much as he can raise over the summer. He maintains that he did not use public money as collateral. If the FEC finds otherwise, it might punish his campaign — but probably not, at the rate things are going, until after the election.

Meantime, last March, Obama and McCain separately agreed that if they won their party nominations, they would abide by public funding limits for the general election as long as the other did. Now, however, Obama’s spokesman says this was not a pledge, but an “option.”

Obama, in an opinion piece in USA Today, said that, if and when he is the Democratic nominee, he will still “aggressively” pursue an agreement but wants it to include a pledge by McCain to limit his expenditures while the Democratic primaries are still under way.

Sorting out all the merits here isn’t easy, but two things seem certain. One is that Obama should drop his conditions and announce he’ll agree to public money for the fall campaign. After all, he has plenty of nonpublic funds on hand to both compete with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) for the Democratic nomination and take swipes at McCain. And, second, the public financing system needs to be reformed so that candidates of both parties can receive sufficient funds to compete in both the primaries and the general election.

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