Why The Lessig Campaign Is Nuts

Bill Scher

Lawrence Lessig has launched a “referendum” campaign for President, meaning his candidacy would serve as an up or down vote on a package of election reforms he calls the Citizens Equality Act. Once he got those reforms enacted, he pledges to resign.

He argues this is the only way to establish a popular mandate for election reforms that curtail corporate campaign cash, gerrymandering and voter suppression, and only after those reforms are accomplished can any other types of reform get through Congress.

Both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders support a constitutional amendment to overturn the Citizens United ruling. Sanders has said his Supreme Court nominees would have to pledge to overturn it as well (Clinton reportedly said the same in a private meeting.) But Lessig claims neither would have a mandate to act because they “would be coming to office with a mandate that’s divided among five or six different issues.”

Why mince words: This is nuts.

First, No one will vote for a candidate with no governing experience on the basis on a single issue.

Lessig says he would step down as soon as his package was passed, and a presumably more qualified Vice-President would then step in. But how long is that going to take? If ever?

In all likelihood the House is going to remain Republican. These are people that didn’t want to let Barack Obama stop a Great Depression, or work with him on minor gun laws after 20 school children were killed. Now they are going instantaneously bow down to Lessig on voting rights, campaign finance and redistricting?

Invariably voters are going to ask Lessig, what are you going to do while you fight Congress on foreign policy? On national security? On regulations?

The president needs to begin juggling multiple issues, sometime multiple crises, on day one. That’s why presidential candidates campaign on more than one issue, and win mandates to act on more than one issue. It’s called governing.

To argue that election reforms can never happen except by Lessig’s referendum strategy is to say that they will never happen.

Furthermore, it’s not true that nothing good can happen until we enact election reforms. “Until it is fixed, no sensible reform is even possible” says Lessig in his announcement video.

Really? Is Obamacare not sensible? Dodd-Frank? The new EPA climate regulations? The new HUD housing desegregation regulations? The most progressive tax code since Jimmy Carter? The new overtime pay rules? The wave of state and city minimum wage hikes?

These policies may not be panaceas. But it is a fallacy to suggest there has been no progress, that nothing good is possible under the current system, and that everything else must be set aside in favor of election reform.

Does money in politics distort the democratic process and make enacting change harder? Sure. But it was always thus. Positive change can still happen by winning elections and organizing on issues. Lessig’s prescription forces people to sideline that organizing until his favored issues are taken care of first.

That is the recipe for grinding progress to a halt.

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