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Pledges and Plagiarism: Real Trouble or Ankle-nipping?

February 20th, 2008

As the new front-runner, Obama is now taking some beatings from both sides, but he seems to be weathering them just fine, while still staying on-message. The attacks seem substantial from the outset, but then tend to die from anemia.

McCain tried to attack over the public-financing pledge, for example. Both campaigns made early pledges to use public financing, but now, Obama has proven very adept at raising money, and is hedging on his earlier pledge. The thing is, the public financing pledge is intended to show that the candidate isn’t beholden to special interests–but Obama’s strength is in raising money through small donations from regular people, something that’s even better than public financing. So while there’s no getting around that he made the pledge, he would have to be an idiot to give up the advantage of his popular tidal wave of low-end contributors. McCain’s being sly here–he knows that Obama’s not selling out, but he can make a few points by trying to paint Obama as a flip-flopper, or worse, as corrupt.

But there is a way out. First of all, since the campaign finance route is a way to avoid politicians being bought by special interests and fat cats, Obama could make a reverse offer: that both campaigns hold contributions down to $200 or less. While this would not get Obama off the hook for reneging on his pledge, it would be a counter-offer that would force McCain to refuse something that is just as reasonable, and would stifle McCain’s claims that Obama is getting special interest funding. McCain would have to reject it, because outside of public financing, his strength will be with the fat cats. Keep it to $200-or-less contributions, and I’m guessing that Obama would wipe the floor with McCain. Others have different ideas for Obama to argue.

Second, Obama can point to McCain’s own troubles with supporting public financing. McCain voted against it in 1995 when it suited his interests, and just recently, it was revealed that McCain has a sweetheart deal with a bank that loaned him big bucks on the condition that he switch to public financing if his campaign faltered. So McCain is hardly snow-white on this issue.

And it seems that over the past few days, the issue has kind of sputtered out. Still, it could come back later–but McCain might not be taken as seriously next time.

The latest attack against Obama comes from his other flank: Hillary is accusing him of plagiarism, because he used almost exact lines from Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick in a speech without giving attribution. Again, it sounds kind of bad–this kind of thing has sunk candidacies in the past, after all–but there is growing recognition that this is not quite so much of an issue as it may seem.

Why not? Because Obama and Patrick “regularly” borrow from each other; they are friends and seem to have an agreement about this. If you and I agree to write and share each other’s material, is it plagiarism if we don’t footnote every use? That would be a hard argument to make. Not to mention that most of the words and phrases that were “stolen” have been uttered by a lot of different politicians over time; it is less plagiarism and more of a common type of rhetoric.

Furthermore, there are shades of hypocrisy in Clinton’s charge: her campaign would not guarantee that Clinton never “borrows” lines from others herself. Their explanation: our campaign is not about the rhetoric, so it’s OK for us to steal, but not for Obama.

Um. Yeah, okay.

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