For a candidate of change, Barack Obama acts an awful lot like a traditional front-runner as he prepares for a general election campaign. The presumptive Democratic nominee for president has rejected Republican Sen. John McCain's proposal for a series of town hall meetings this summer. On Thursday, the Illinois senator announced he is declining public campaign financing for the general election after earlier pledging he would accept it. The candidate who talks of creating a new culture in Washington is not so eager to break the mold when it comes to managing public appearances and raising mountains of money.
McCain's pitch for 10 town hall meetings with Obama starting this month would have changed the dynamics of presidential politics for the better. Those settings would have given voters opportunities to see both men react to real issues with at least some spontaneity in more informal environments. While McCain is more comfortable in such venues than in formal debates, Obama would have had a real opportunity to answer critics who claim his primary talent is speechmaking. His counterproposal of two town hall meetings, including one on the Fourth of July when few are watching television, and the three traditional presidential debates, is not a worthy counteroffer. It effectively kills the idea.
Obama's decision to break his 2007 pledge to accept public campaign financing if his general election opponent did makes him just another presidential candidate exploiting his advantage as the front-runner. McCain, whose campaign nearly ran out of money during the primary season, has indicated he will accept the public money and the $84-million spending limit that is attached to it. But Obama will become the first major-party presidential candidate in the general election to shun public financing since the system began in 1976. Now that he has some 1.5-million online contributors and raised a record $265-million through April, taking the high road doesn't look so appealing. Obama's explanation Thursday that he supports the concept but that the public campaign financing system is broken rings hollow; the system, however flawed, is the same one he committed to last year.
Avoiding town hall meetings and rejecting public campaign financing may be predictable strategies for minimizing one of McCain's greatest strengths and exploiting one of his key weaknesses. But they pull Obama down into the cynical political calculations he pledged to rise above.