Why Exactly Is Lawrence Lessig Considering Running for President?

The Harvard professor wants to get money out of politics — and thinks he has the best plan to do it.

Professor Lawrence Lessig accepts an award at the 18th Annual Webby Awards on May 19, 2014 in New York City. 
National Journal
Clare Foran
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Clare Foran
Aug. 11, 2015, 8:08 a.m.

Lawrence Lessig has an unusual idea.

The Harvard professor, TED talker, and campaign-finance-reform activist formally announced on Tuesday that he is exploring a 2016 White House bid as a “referendum president.”

Here’s what that means: If Lessig jumps into the race and wins, he says he would immediately take action to end what he calls the corrupting influence of money in politics. Lessig promises he would do that by changing the way elections are funded, guaranteeing the right to vote, and ending gerrymandering. After that, he would step down, handing over the reins to the vice president.

Even Lessig admits that it’s a long shot. “This won’t be easy, I get it,” he says in a prominently displayed video on his freshly minted “Lessig for President” website.

Add to that the fact that the Harvard professor has a track record of bold political plans that have fizzled. During the 2014 elections, Lessig’s Mayday PAC doled out more than $10 million to back candidates promising campaign-finance reform. In the end, nearly everyone the group supported lost.

But Lessig won’t give up easily. He wants to crowd-fund his presidential bid. And if he raises $1 million by Labor Day — and the current Democratic presidential contenders haven’t by then made, in his view, campaign-finance reform their No. 1 priority — Lessig says he’ll jump into the race. (At the time of publication, Lessig had raised more than $31,000 from 317 donors with 28 days left.)

Even in the likely event that his candidacy stalls out, Lessig may still be able to make it to the main stage during the early Democratic primary debates, which start in October. That would give him a megaphone and a spotlight to push his “end big money in politics” agenda.

“What I would say is, I have a real shot of getting on the debate stage,” Lessig told reporters on a call Tuesday morning. “Obviously, even if I don’t get to be the nominee, to have the opportunity to show, for every single issue that there is, how it needs to be brought around to this citizen-equality point would be incredibly important.”

Lessig’s entry into the race and onto a debate stage — or even just an onslaught of press coverage highlighting his effort — could put pressure on Democratic 2016 front-runners to address campaign-finance reform more forcefully on the trail. (Lessig has already grabbed headlines in The New York Times, CNN, Bloomberg, The Huffington Post, and well, of course, National Journal on Tuesday. In an interview, he told the Times that there are “a hundred successes short of” winning the 2016 election.)

The thing is: Lessig isn’t the only 2016 contender to advocate campaign-finance reform. He’s not even the only candidate pledging to make it a central focus of his candidacy.

On the Democratic side of the field, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders support a constitutional amendment that would overturn the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision, a ruling that critics say opened the door for an unchecked flood of money into politics. Bernie Sanders in particular has made campaign-finance reform a major pillar of his campaign, and he has frequently bludgeoned Citizens United on the trail.

Republican presidential contender Lindsey Graham has also called for a constitutional amendment to strike down the high Court verdict.

Lessig said during Tuesday’s press call that he has spoken to Sanders in the past about the importance of campaign-finance reform. He said that he attempted to reach Sanders by phone yesterday to tell him he would be announcing an exploratory bid but was unable to reach him and so sent an email instead. “I haven’t had a chance to talk to Secretary Clinton,” Lessig said, adding that presidential contenders must outline a concrete plan to show how they would “get us an uncorrupted Congress” and achieve campaign-finance reform.

Lessig thinks a constitutional fix of the ilk proposed by Sanders, Clinton, and Graham simply won’t be enough. “Even if we could pass an amendment to reverse Citizens United soon, … it would not solve the problem of money’s influence in American politics,” he wrote in a Times op-ed in July.

Lessig wants the next president to quickly enact reforms that would give way to small-dollar, public election-financing. On his 2016 website, Lessig suggests that this could be achieved by doling out vouchers to every voter that could then be given to congressional and presidential campaigns.

Earlier this month, Sanders even pledged to introduce legislation for public-financing for campaigns. But Lessig believes that campaign-finance reform still hasn’t been made a big enough priority in the 2016 race so far.

“Every major candidate in the Democratic primary for president has acknowledged this corruption, [but] so far, every one of them just puts it to one side as if without fixing the rigged system first, we could get climate-change legislation or sane limits on guns,” Lessig said in the video, adding: “As if fixing democracy by achieving equality were something that could just wait. It can’t wait. This must end now.”

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