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Could A Particularly Pointless Vanity Campaign Have Saved Us All?



Albert Burneko laments the fact that someone who was never actually running for president is no longer running for president:

Lessig’s résumé, by any reasonable standard, is very impressive. He is among America’s most credible and authoritative voices on political and campaign finance reform, as well as on technology and internet rights, which will be among the most important areas of public policy in the 21st century. He has degrees in economics, management, philosophy, and law; he has clerked in the Supreme Court; and he is one of the top professors at Harvard Law School, from whence graduated the current presidents of both the United States and Taiwan, five of the nine sitting justices on the U.S. Supreme Court, sitting U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, and damn near every other political figure whose name you know who has a law degree. He helped write the constitution of the nation of Georgia! He co-founded Creative Commons! He was fictionalized in an episode of The West Wing, for god’s sake! How many of the other candidates have been portrayed by Emmy- and Independent Spirit Award-winning thespian Christopher Lloyd, I ask you? None of them.

And yet, none of this—nor a campaign as formally and legitimately declared as any other, nor fundraising and polling numbers not meaningfully smaller than Jim Webb’s or Martin O’Malley’s—could even get Lessig on the stage for the Oct. 13 Democratic debate.


Imagine you are an alien from a distant, highly advanced, space-faring civilization. You have been sent to observe the species in charge of planet Earth, to determine what relationship, if any, your species should have with theirs. From your invisible spaceship high in the atmosphere, you download to your quantum meta-cortex (at bitchin’ data-transfer speeds) all the information you can get about the contest currently underway to choose a leader for what has been Earth’s most powerful nation for the past 60 years or so. This nation is in decline; on that there is near universal agreement. It faces major challenges, among them what might eventually be existential threats to human civilization. This is serious business, and from it you will learn a great deal about these curious sweaty hominids.

And, hmm, well, jeez. Whatever can this mean? They found room in their persuasive arguing contests for Lincoln Chafee; for Donald Trump; the supposedly progressive party carved out space for Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of the Navy to rail against racial inclusiveness in anti-discrimination policies; the supposedly pro-business one made room for a business executive whose boldest and most defensible claim to leadership mettle is that the corporation from which she fired 30,000 workers had not altogether ceased to exist when it got around to firing her for incompetence. But, for the renowned expert on law and representative government, the one with practical experience in and actual informed positions on the major public concerns of the day? Shit, I guess they ran outta lecterns.

Here’s the thing: politician is a job of its own, and Larry Lessig really isn’t remotely qualified to do it. Not every smart person who has written books and has expertise on certain political issues is capable of being a good political leader. Policy expertise is no guarantee that you’ll have good ideas about how to bring desirable policy changes about, and Lessig has now shown this multiple times, after attracting money that could be used for something that’s actually useful.

Lessig wasn’t running for president — he was running to bring issues to the table. So we have to consider what, exactly, of value he was trying to bring to the table. Did he stake out a position rejected by most mainstream Democrats? Nope. His views campaign finance and electoral reform are not meaningfully different from those of Clinton, Sanders, or O’Malley. He wasn’t trying to push the Democratic center of gravity to the left like Sanders is trying to do on economic issues.

So any added value he was bringing to the table had to involve ideas for achieving campaign finance and electoral reform while Republicans have a hammerlock on the House of Representatives and control the median vote on the Supreme Court, or for attracting more support to the cause. And on both fronts, for all of his credentials and policy expertise his ideas were just transparently stupid. (There’s a reason Burneko spends a lot of time discussing Lessig’s cv and no time discussing the details of his actual campaign.) A presidential candidate cannot transform an election into a “referendum” by refusing to discuss other issues. The word “mandate” does not suddenly make all structural limitations on political change disappear. You cannot attract support to an important cause by ignoring most of the issues your constituents want to talk about. Pledging to take your ball and go home once Congress addresses your single issue is not actually a source of leverage, and also makes you look like the dilettante you in fact are. Needing Drew Westen — the leftier Mark Penn — to tell you that this is even worse. The fundamentally condescending nature of Lessig’s campaign — we need a real expert to show these professional politicians how to get Republicans to pass legislation contrary to their ideological and practical interests! — just makes the fundamental unseriousness of his No Labels pablum and silly ideas about how to make omnibus electoral reform happen look all the worse.

On the narrow issue of the debates, I have a certain sympathy for the view that if Lincoln Chaffee can be permitted onstage, Lessig should have been. On the other hand, it’s worth noting that the support threshold for participating in the Democratic debates is so low that, er, Lincoln Chafee could clear them. He didn’t clear the threshold in large measure because he didn’t enter the race in a timely manner, but he should have know the rules in advance. And it’s also awkward for the DNC to make a special exemption when a candidate announces in advance that he’s not willing to discuss most of the topics the other candidates will address. But, ultimately, I wish he had been invited to the debates so nobody would tempted to argue that his failure to gain any traction was part of some sort of DNC conspiracy to silence him.

I conclude by once again citing the great Garry Wills:

It is too easy to conclude, prematurely, that the only “way to save oneself is to bury oneself.” Seneca would judge that a politician who refuses to answer questions has barely been engaged in the first place. Those who decide they are too good for politics may be right, but they are often the least qualified judges, either of their own virtue or the system’s viciousness.

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