A Matter of Self-Definition 

Obama is doing the right thing by opting out of public financing.

One of the big political debates these days surrounds the decision of Senator Barack Obama to eschew public financing, a decision that many critics say constitutes him breaking a campaign promise and exposes the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee to allegations of hypocrisy.

It's a fair guess that an impartial jury might well convict him if this were a criminal offense, rather than a commonplace activity in American politics. And by opting to stay in the publicly financed campaign system, Senator John McCain, the Republican nominee-in-waiting, earns the right to flail away at his Democratic opponent for selling out and going back on his word.

One of the by-products of each major party nominating its most self-righteous and sanctimonious candidate is that with some degree of regularity in the campaign, each will be embarrassed by not adhering to an impossibly high, and politically impractical, standard of moral and ethical perfection.

Obama and McCain have had to jettison talented and experienced people, because those people made their livings petitioning the government on behalf of aggrieved people or others with business before the government or because a vetter didn't maintain the standard that had been set only for the vettee.

Perhaps it is because I am on the wrong side of 50 years of age that I don't understand the concept of "post-partisan," the new buzzword that, as best I can tell, means that your last name is not Bush, Clinton, or Dole. But if Obama is to be elected president, and it would seem at this stage that there is about a 50-50 chance he will be, I am a bit relieved that a potential president would be disinclined to give up a likely three- or four-to-one spending advantage.

I strongly suspect that if Obama had agreed to tie both hands behind his back going into the general election, the word "naive" might be thrown around once or twice, possibly more than "hypocrite" is now.

McCain has every right to question Obama's honesty and integrity for this; he can certainly milk this for some political value. After all, he is going to be seriously outspent and should be able to get what marginal benefit he can get out of this awful situation.

And if there is anyone who believes that if the tables were turned, McCain wouldn't take the extra money and run like a thief, I have some land on the southern tip of Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, that would make for a great beach resort, with a guarantee of no hurricanes hitting.

The Gallup Organization's daily tracking polls for June show a tight race, rarely moving past the error margins, with both candidates under 50 percent of those surveyed. With a race this close, it is difficult to imagine anyone giving up a potentially game-changing financial advantage, and it is unrealistic to expect it.

It's a fair bet that Obama will use some national network advertising over the course of this summer to attempt to drive some national poll numbers his way. With this, he can shape the public and media perception of the contest and sow discord among Republicans that a Democrat is spending money and drawing more votes out of historically Republican base states — with everyone knowing that McCain cannot possibly match him.

But there is another reason to opt out of public funding. Obama has to more fully develop the perception of who he is. The blank spaces on his canvas will be filled, and the only questions are who will fill them and what it will look like. Voters have to identify with Obama on some level and feel that they have the same core values that he has, or he will lose this election. For Obama to win, they must see something of themselves in him.

With a campaign war chest this large, Obama has a pretty good chance of defining himself better than others who will seek to do it for him.

If the financial playing field were level, the chances of Obama having the opportunity to define himself would be much less. That's why an Obama supporter should be hesitant to criticize this decision and an opponent would be well advised to flail away and try to get some value out of this reversal.

Charlie Cook, father of two Rhodes College students and speaker at the Memphis Rotary Club this week, is editor of National Journal's renowned "Cook Political Report."

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