Harvard Professor Lawrence Lessig is threatening to run for president on the single plank of political equality and campaign finance reform if he can raise $1 million by the end of August. The centerpiece of his campaign would be a promise to resign -- you heard that right -- just as soon as Congress passed a comprehensive campaign finance reform proposal.
Lessig has said he would run as a Democrat and would choose someone like Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders as his vice president. That person would take over and run the country once the reform agenda had passed. And that is precisely why his plan won't work, even if he miraculously was elected.
Republicans in Congress would much rather have an inexperienced academic in the White House with no plan to actually govern than a popular former U.S. Senator who campaigned on a substantive agenda. GOP senators would do anything they could to keep an ineffectual president Lessig in office for as long as possible, rather than enacting the reforms that would prompt him to resign.
Professor Lessig's scheme is based on the antiquated notion that winning a presidential election produces a mandate to govern. While that once was true, Barack Obama found out the hard way that mandates no longer matter. After winning two national elections that created and defended a mandate for a national health care plan, he found Republicans in Congress working steadfastly to block and then repeal that plan.
Due to gerrymandered congressional districts and the post-Citizens United reality that has largely replaced the role of political parties with big-money SuperPACs, presidential campaigns no longer create the sort of coattails that can ensure a majority of the president's party also captures Congress and can then implement the president's campaign promises. So even if Lessig, or any other Democrat, wins the White House by a large margin there is a strong chance that Republicans will retain control of the House of Representatives.
Should Democrats regain majority control of the U.S. Senate, they are unlikely to find the intellectual and political courage necessary to eliminate the anti-democratic filibuster rule which requires 60 votes to pass legislation.
So any reform plan in the near future would need Republican support in Congress to pass. Why would Republican members of Congress do that if it ensured that someone like Elizabeth Warren would become president? Lessig's bluff makes about as much sense as Ben Carson running a single issue campaign around the budget deficit and pledging to resign and make a vice president like Jeb Bush or Scott Walker president once Democrats in Congress supported a balanced budget amendment. Democratic legislators would tell him to take a hike, just as Republicans would thumb their noses at Lessig.
While Republican voters want big money out of politics nearly as much as Democrats and Independents, Republican politicians at the federal level have opposed limits on campaign money almost in lockstep. That won't change until Republicans like Senator Mitch McConnell calculate a greater electoral downside to Republican re-election campaigns than the advantage they perceive from billionaires writing huge checks. A tea-party style insurgency challenging big-money Republicans from within party primaries is more likely to threaten establishment politicians like McConnell than a Democratic presidential campaign.
Republican voters would likely support a conservative candidate who wanted to get big money out of politics, but so far only Lindsay Graham has come out for a constitutional amendment to overturn the Citizens United ruling. Donald Trump is demonstrating the problem by bragging about the favors he buys from politicians, but he hasn't offered any solutions.
If Lessig were to run as a Republican, he'd have a much larger impact on the race than by running against Democrats who are already talking about money in politics. Both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have pledged to only nominate Supreme Court justices who would overturn misguided court doctrine that unlimited campaign spending is free speech (a pledge Lessig has failed to make). His only contribution to the Democratic debate is his illogical threat to resign.
Granted, many Republican voters would disagree with Professor Lessig's views on issues beyond corruption. But, they might view a Lessig campaign as their best chance to get a Republican into the White House by hoping he could attract some votes to the ticket and then taking him up on his resignation scheme.
Professor Lessig deserves credit for persevering in the fight against big money despite his previous setbacks. Giving up is not an option. We need innovate methods for the overwhelming majority of Americans who want big money out of politics to demand change, and Lessig is certainly creative. Running as a Republican wouldn't guarantee success, but it provides a more plausible strategy than running as a Democrat.
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