Larry Lessig's Half-Serious Plan to Hold the Country Hostage

Invoking the ghost of Eugene McCarthy, Harvard law professor Larry Lessig has announced that he will run for President as a single-issue candidate. Just as McCarthy, in 1968, "made the Vietnam War an issue," Lessig will campaign on a platform solely dedicated to electoral and campaign finance reforms. If elected, he will immediately resign upon passage of the Citizen Equality Act of 2017.

It is very difficult to take any of this seriously, in part because it betrays a shocking lack of concern for how our government actually operates.

For one thing, McCarthy was only able to "make the Vietnam War an issue" because his campaign-- against an incumbent president of his own party -- was bankrolled by a small number of donors cutting six-figure checks. McCarthy biographer Dominic Sandbrook has noted that just 50 large donors were responsible for nearly a third of McCarthy's 1968 fundraising.

More striking, the Citizen Equality Act of 2017 does not exist. Lessig's campaign website points to some proposals he would like to generally follow, with the emphasis being government-subsidized political campaigns (which, ironically, Eugene McCarthy steadfastly opposed). But he has yet to actually write the centerpiece of his campaign. Instead, if Lessig raises enough money by Labor Day, he "will crowdsource a process to complete the details of the reform."

Lessig has pledged to make passing the (as-yet-unwritten) Act his first and only priority. In his campaign's own words:

Once sworn into office as the president, Lessig will use every power of the office -- and the mandate of the election -- to get Congress to pass the Equal Citizens Act of 2017. When it does, he will sign it, and submit his letter of resignation on the same day. After he resigns, the vice president will become president, and we will have taken the most important step towards a Congress that is free to represent us since Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence.

This is a remarkable bit of egoism. Several other landmarks in our history -- the Emancipation Proclamation, the Voting Rights Act, or the Constitution itself -- are certainly more consequential steps toward self-government than the inchoate Act. Writing the Act will prove even more difficult with such grandiose expectations.

This delusional sense of history is only a symptom of the larger problem that animates Lessig's entire project. Consider for a moment what it would mean for a president to insist upon making the Act his sole act of government before resigning.

What if Congress fails to cooperate? How, precisely, will President Lessig force its hand given our constitutional structure? In the meantime, will he govern at all, or leave the trifles of his office -- national security and appointments to the judiciary, for instance -- to others? What if, heaven forbid, there is a significant attack on America or its interests? Does he honestly expect to serve as president, even for a time, while essentially conceding that he has no expertise or interest in these topics?

But that's not the worst part. Assume that the Act passes. Well, then, the vice president will become president! Legally correct, but we are not told who that will be. This is no small detail. Lessig has declared that this individual will become president at the earliest opportunity. While Lessig clearly does not believe he personally has the capacity to govern -- otherwise, he might actually run for office in a serious matter -- he expects the country to trust him to appoint someone who can. But we are to ignore who that future president will be when contributing to Lessig and his "referendum candidacy."

In Lessig's world, the Act is merely a title in search of content, the obligations of the presidency are a side-show to the passage of that Act, and the presidency of the United States is merely an appointment that the nation should trust to... Larry Lessig.

Of course, maybe he's not really running for president, and just making a point. But he's making that point by raising real money for a presidential run.

Lessig has tried this sort of publicity stunt before, with his appropriately-named Mayday PAC. That organization, which raised $10 million, was supposed to be the Super PAC to end all Super PACs, bankrolling candidates of any party or ideological persuasion so long as they supported Lessig's vision for campaign finance regulation. Despite spending $7.5 million across eight races, Mayday PAC's candidates won in only two, and there's precious little evidence that Mayday's spending had anything to do with those victories.

Along the way, Mayday became a cautionary tale of the problems created by the complex campaign finance regulations Lessig supports. Mayday itself violated perhaps the easiest of the many regulations already governing political advertisements (the requirement that they contain a carefully-worded disclaimer).

So if you support Lessig's ideas, give to candidates who agree with you. Send money to Super PACs raising this issue. Donate to nonprofits and advocacy groups supporting these reforms. (And if you disagree with Lessig, do the opposite!)

But Lessig's sham campaign isn't the work of a serious person addressing the many real problems confronting our country. It's a set of talking points that trivializes the actual duties of governing. It's what happens when a one-issue zealot, with little concern for the world outside his ivory tower, decides that his pet theory is the only thing that matters, and he himself the only person who can be trusted.

And, like Mayday, it's a waste of time and money.

When he ran Mayday PAC, Lessig asked his supporters to "embrace the irony." Perhaps it's time he put irony aside and embraced the truth: the presidency is not a game.