Sorry, professor.

Photographer: Scott Eisen/Getty Images

Lawrence Lessig Was Wrong

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.
Read More.
a | A

Law professor Lawrence Lessig dropped his campaign for the Democratic nomination today.

Who?

He's an activist for campaign-financing reform, and he based his entire presidential race around two ideas. First, as he said in his farewell video today, he claimed that nothing can be done about issues Democrats care about unless the way campaigns are financed changes. Second, he said that if he had been elected based on this one issue, he would have had a voter mandate, and Congress would have had no choice but to pass the reforms he wanted.

Vox's Dylan Matthews nails Lessig's first contention:

Yup. True, many liberals were disappointed in what they saw as compromises in Obamacare, the economic stimulus, the Dodd-Frank financial package, the president's executive action on immigration and climate, and all the other changes in federal policy over the last seven years. But one has to be far from the U.S. mainstream to believe that nothing significant happened, especially in the two years Barack Obama had a Democratic Congress.

Moreover, congressional capacity is limited. Had the 111th Congress (2009-2010) focused on campaign finance and similar policies involving the political process, it would have had to give up legislation that it passed in other areas.

And no matter what Lessig says about a mandate from voters, Republicans in Congress would have remained free to ignore his proposed legislation. Voters would have also elected those Republicans, who would have had no reason to give more weight to the president's electorate.  

Lessig complained the Democrats excluded him from their debates. If true, good for them. Republicans should have taken tighter control of theirs, too. Remember, dozens of people "run" for president every cycle -- people none of us ever hear about, but who nevertheless enter at least one primary. Lessig never gave anyone reason to believe he belonged in the "major candidate" category. He didn't have conventional qualifications for the job, and made no pretense of interest in being president. There's no reason parties should elevate issue activism to the national debate platform.

If Lessig wants to move his issue to the top of the Democratic agenda, there are other ways to do that. His brief "candidacy" only hurt the cause he claims to care about – as was easy to predict from the outset.

  1. If Lessig's "mandate" theory of elections is true, then his claim that campaign finance has to come first makes even less sense; why wouldn't a candidate simply campaign on, and therefore receive a mandate for, a substantive issue such as climate change or economic regulation? 

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

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

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