A single-minded reformer.

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Lawrence Lessig's Self-Defeating Crusade

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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We have a new presidential candidate today. Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard law professor and campaign-finance crusader, is launching a single-issue protest bid for the Democratic nomination.

Why is he doing this? After all, the Democrats more or less already share his position, which is to support government reforms such as limiting the influence of political contributions and expanding voting rights. Presumptive nominee Hillary Clinton has said she wants to rein in big money in campaigns and make voting easier, while her challenger, Senator Bernie Sanders, wants to "pass a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United and move toward public funding of elections."

Even if there's no real difference in their positions, however, Lessig says he puts a higher priority on the reforms than Clinton or Sanders do.

And the ranking of priorities in politics matters a lot. Democrats in 2008 were committed to both health-care reform and action on climate change. But health care was at the top of their agenda, and Obama and congressional Democrats pushed that legislation. Sooner or later, Democrats will have a chance to take action on a new top priority, and various party actors -- including politicians, governing professionals, activists, donors and party-aligned interest groups -- quite properly work hard, years in advance, to get their ideas to the top of the list. 

Presidential nominations are perhaps the most important way parties sort out those preferences. But how likely is Lessig's gambit to move his cause higher on the Democrats' agenda? Not very.

On the plus side for Lessig, he has already generated one round of stories (including this one!) about himself and his cause. Should he somehow wind up the beneficiary of a public-opinion surge -- and any candidate can enjoy one -- then that wave would lift his pet issue.

On the minus side: He's unlikely to receive such a surge. If he does poorly (say, falling short of 5 percent of the vote in Iowa and New Hampshire early next year), it could easily harm his effort. Democrats would have proof that voters don't care much about campaign finance. Even those in the party who strongly believe in Lessig's solutions might conclude they are electorally toxic.

Moreover, it's likely that whatever small fraction of voter support he receives would be at the expense of Sanders, a strong advocate of the professor's issues. So Lessig might manage to damage his own faction of the party and set back campaign reform.

In his statement today, Lessig praises Sanders but claims that the only way for the preferred reforms to happen would be with a "referendum" presidency in which someone -- that is, Lessig -- were elected on a single issue. This is nonsense, of course. Congress would still be free to ignore the president's precious mandate. Each member of the House or Senate is elected based on his or her own priorities, without regard to a president's demand.

So while Lessig is correct that putting pressure on a political party, especially in primary elections, is the best way to elevate a favored issue, he's wrong about how to go about it. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net