Lawrence Lessig Wants to Be President for a Day

If the Harvard law professor can raise $1 million by Labor Day, he'll run for president. His pledge: He'll work to pass one particular law, then resign.


This is the guy. Right here. This man.
Lessig Equal Citizens Exploratory Committee

There have been many single-issue campaigns in U.S. history, but none quite like the one unveiled this morning by Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard law professor best known for his writings on cyberspace and campaign finance issues. If his exploratory committee succeeds in a Kickstarter-style push to raise $1 million in individual donations by Labor Day, Lessig will enter the Democratic presidential race with a platform of passing what he calls the Citizen Equality Act. And then, as soon as he signs that bill into law, he will resign and let his vice president take over the job. In an ideal world, he says, he'd be president for just a day.

By focusing his candidacy on this issue alone, he believes he can turn the election into a referendum on his ideas for fixing the American political process. In a video announcing his plans, he says he wants to be a "referendum president."

The actual text of the Citizen Equality Act hasn't been finalized yet—Lessig hopes to have it ready by January—but an outline of what he plans to do with it is on his website. The first prong of the legislation would make it easier to vote, via same-day registration and similar measures. The second prong is a system of ranked voting, so that citizens can cast a ballot for a first choice, a second choice, and so on. And the third prong, which Lessig considers the most important part of the law, is a voucher-based system of public funding for elections, with citizens steering money toward the candidates of their choice.

Needless to say, this is an unusual campaign. To learn more about what the candidate intends to accomplish with it, I spoke with Lessig on the phone today as a car ferried him from his hotel to Bloomberg TV's New York studios.

reason: How would your campaign finance proposal work, and how does it differ from the current Presidential Election Campaign Fund?

Lawrence Lessig: It's totally different from the presidential public funding. Presidential public funding is top-down, government-directed public funding. This is bottom-up. Rebate the first $100 of your taxes in the form of a voucher. Every registered voter gets a voucher. They could give the voucher to any candidate who agrees to limit contributions to vouchers and small contributions. So you would radically increase the number of contributors and steer candidates away from focusing the way they do on the large-dollar funders.

reason: There was some language on your website about what the bill would do "at a minimum." Were you thinking about having more features than just that?

Lessig: That's right. That's the minimum commitment.

reason: So what other possible things are you looking at, as far as the funding of campaigns is concerned?

Lessig: This bill would steer far from any effort to limit [funding]. That would trigger constitutional issues. I think there's an open question—the courts have never really addressed whether SuperPACs are constitutionally required. The DC Circuit Court did in SpeechNow but the Supreme Court never addressed that. So there might be an opportunity to raise that issue separately. But this would solely be focused on de-concentrating funding, so we don't have a system where this tiny, tiny fraction of the 1 percent is funding campaigns.

When you give so much power to such a tiny number of people, then regardless of the issue they can block any change. I've forever been talking about the way this blocks people on the right as much as it blocks people on the left.

reason: When people talk about any kind of public funding of campaigns, the usual objection is that this means taxpayers are going to be forced to contribute to candidates they dislike. Even if you can choose where the money's being steered, you're still putting money in the kitty. What's your answer to that?

Lessig: First, we have to embrace our inner Tea Party: It's our money coming back to us. And by setting the number pretty low— In my book Republic, Lost, I had a number, $50, just for congressional candidates. I did some research on tax dollars and asserted, with pretty high confidence, that 99.4 percent of voters have sent at least $50 to the federal treasury. So you're going to send that first $50 back to me so that I can use that to fund the campaigns of the people I care about. So there's no cross-subsidy in that story. I crafted it specifically to respond to this concern about cross-subsidy.

Now, many people aren't much concerned about cross-subsidy. If I say I don't like the way my money's being used in Iraq or Afghanistan, people say, "Well, tough." So if it can be used to, quote, "defend democracy" over there, I'm not sure why it can't be used to defend democracy over here.

reason: You said in your press conference this morning that you've spoken at Tea Party events and that you think your platform could appeal to that audience as well as to liberals. So let's say you're the Democratic nominee and you're campaigning in a red state. Walk me through what your pitch to Tea Partiers would sound like.

Lessig: The pitch is: This system is a system of crony capitalism. And it's a crony-capitalist system because the only way members of Congress can get elected is if they raise money from large donors, and those large donors are expecting something in return. The Cato Institute says the United States government spends a hundred billion dollars a year on corporate welfare. Why are they spending a hundred billion dollars on corporate welfare? They're spending a hundred billion dollars on corporate welfare because this is the essential return to keep them interested in being in the business.

And we can go beyond the corporate welfare to talk about the particular tax subsidies, the tax expenditure games that get played—all of these are exactly at the core of what the right cares about, and how the right is increasingly recognizing how, unless we fix this system, we're never going to address those issues either.

I don't know if you know Richard Painter, who was George Bush's ethics czar. He's got a book in process right now called Taxation without Representation, and he has a much more aggressive proposal for a voucher of $200. The book takes every conservative perspective—social conservatives, economic conservatives, libertarians—and for each of these demonstrates how their values are defeated by this system of large-dollar funding of elections. So basically I think I would just steal Richard Painter's book and hand it out at every event.

reason: Now suppose you're talking to a liberal audience and a big Obama supporter stands up and says, "In the last few years we've passed Obamacare and Dodd-Frank and more, but you're saying we can't get sweeping liberal legislation passed. Are you saying those aren't substantial reforms?"

Lessig: Obamacare is an incredibly important piece of legislation. It has incredibly important compromises built in that are only there because of the money. For example, even though Obama ridiculed George Bush's prescription drug law for the rule that says the government can't negotiate lower prices with drug manufacturers, that provision is in Obamacare. And why is it in Obamacare? Because the pharmaceutical companies basically said they would spend millions of dollars to defeat Democrats if it weren't included.

Now is that because the companies thought they could turn out millions of voters who would vote in favor of the interests of the insurance companies over the interests of people who want to be able to get afforable drugs? No! It was because of the money. Same thing with the public option. Obama pushed and pushed and pushed, said he would not sign anything without a public option. Then, when it came to the final deal, the insurance companies said we're gonna spend this amount of money if you don't give us what we want with the public option. And of course the public option disappeared.

This is just a particular example of what Robert Reich has written about, where he says, yeah, we can get social legislation in America—so long as we pay off the special interests. What that means is the social legislation always costs billions, and in these cases maybe trillions, more over the life of the legislation than what they would otherwise cost.

Dodd-Frank? Oh, my gosh. Don't get me started. Already we're at a place where at the one side you've got people arguing we've got to undo Dodd-Frank and re-deregulate derivatives, leading us into exactly the same problem we had before. And on the other side, basically every Democratic candidate is talking about how they're going to go forward and do another version of financial reform with, basically, a new version of Glass-Steagall.

I don't doubt the good motives of both Dodd and Frank, and they worked as hard as they could. But they worked as hard as they could in a field that had been narrowed by the recognition that you could not take on the largest contributors to congressional campaigns, namely Wall Street and insurance and real estate companies, without severe consequences. Indeed, if you look at the percentage of that money Democrats get, there's been a radical decline as Wall Street basically punishes the Democrats. Which leads Democrats—at least those worried about how to get elected in Congress—to ask the question, "What can we do to earn back the love of Wall Street?"

reason: The core of your campaign is that you're basically a human referendum on the Citizen Equality Act, and that once it's passed you'll resign in favor of your vice president. Wouldn't that ultimately make this a presidential campaign for your running mate?

Lessig: Well, it depends on how contested we get the referendum issue to be. I desperately would love to see a Republican step up and be a referendum candidate too. If we had two referendum candidates at the top, we would know we'd get reform, and then we'd have a fight about which of the vice-presidential contenders would be in office after the reform bill is passed.

So you're right, there's gonna be some bleeding there. But look, just think about the arc of the story if in fact this became the central focus of the campaign. We would have constant attention to why this central equality issue is so important. It would be the most important equality act passed since the Voting Rights Act. And it's about time. Fifty years after the Voting Rights Act, we need to take the next big step, which is to extend equality in a way that reaches all citizens, and not focus on those who have been most burdened historically by the inequality of our government.

reason: Do you have anyone in mind for a vice presidential candidate?

Lessig: I think we've got to wait until the convention, but the type of people I'd like to see are people who articulate strongly the values of the Democratic Party. Bernie's obviously been doing that powerfully. Elizabeth Warren's been doing that powerfully. Those are my own personal preferences. But we've got to pick the candidate who makes it most likely that we can be victorious in November.

reason: You've argued that the pursuit of campaign funds effectively creates another primary where most voters are excluded. But voters are even more excluded from the selection of a vice presidential candidate—it's generally considered these days to be the nominee's perogative to pick any willing body that he or she wants. Since a lot would be riding on your selection of a running mate, how would you get around that problem?

Lessig: It's a great point, but here's why I don't think it's as powerful as it sounds. You're right that presidents historically have had the right to just pick. But the president is picking in light of what they know the electorate is going to do. And so in a certain important sense, the president is picking in light of the public's judgement about who's the right person to make the ticket work.

My own view is that what the Democratic Party has learned is that being principled and strong, the way Reagan was for the Republican Party, is the way to become a successful party again. Huffington Post had this great piece about all of Bill Clinton's laments. All of the things that Bill Clinton did that he regrets that he did. And if you go through every one of those, they were all examples of what he was calling the New Democrat, which basically was just trying to be a cooler Republican. I think we've learned that we've got to be as persistent and strong and principled about what we believe in as the Republicans were in the rise of the right.

That's the kind of message I hope we can be pushing. But the point of picking the vice president is to pick the person that can rally the nation. In this complicated context, basically you're getting two presidents for the price of one. What we need is the second president to be somebody who can take advantage of the opportunity to govern in a context where Congress is free to lead rather than following their funders.

reason: Suppose you're elected, and a major economic or international crisis takes place before you can shepherd the Citizen Equality Act into law. Do you handle that, or do you let the veep take charge while you lobby for the law?

Lessig: I'm president. It's my judgment and it's my call.

Now, I think that I'm a unique kind of president, in the sense that I have a dual trusteeship. I'm a trustee for the people to get the law passed, and I'm a trustee for the vice president, in the sense that we know that the vice president is going to be president, and therefore I need to structure the administration in light of the interests of the vice president. But there is no ambiguity about who's president. I'm president until I resign.

reason: You've spoken highly of Bernie Sanders. Are you worried at all that, whatever the differences are between his platform and yours, he already occupies the "progressive insurgent" niche as far as voter excitement and press attention are concerned?

Lessig: You know, I don't think this campaign is about the progressive base. The progressive base certainly is interested in this issue, but so is every other Democrat. I think Bernie Sanders has been pushing the issues in a very powerful way, and I hope he continues, and I hope he develops a more convincing platform for how in fact he'll have a mandate broad enough to get something passed. But it's not just the Bernie Sanders people who are interested in this. I've seen an enormous number of people who say, "Look, I'm a Democrat and fundamentally I agree with what you're saying, but I don't agree with what Bernie Sanders is saying." And I say to those people: Then you ought to be supporting me and somebody else. Like maybe Jim Webb. Or maybe Hillary Clinton. This campaign is not either/or. This is both/and. This is Lessig and somebody, because I am essentially doing one thing until somebody steps in.

reason: But the sorts of people who get fired up about a more idea-focused campaign tend to be campus-based activists. And it's Bernie Sanders who's been firing up that part of the Democratic base.

Lessig: He is, and more power to him. That is the most hopeful thing I've seen in politics since Obama. If people understand what I am saying as "Don't vote for Bernie, vote for me," then I lose. But if people understand what I'm saying to be, "We've got to get what Lessig's talking about done so that Bernie can get what he wants done too…"

reason: You mentioned your dream of running against a Republican referendum candidate. Are there any candidates on the Republican side that you feel come close to addressing the concerns that you're trying to raise?

Lessig: Well, now that Trump has pulled back the curtain and pointed to each of these candidates and said "I own these guys," and talked about Hillary Clinton coming to his wedding, all of the sudden this is an open issue in the Republican Party. I was eager when Buddy Roemer ran in 2012, because I imagined Buddy Roemer would have been a saner version of Donald Trump up on that stage making exactly the same point. But now that Donald Trump has done it, Ted Cruz has started to talk in this way. Lindsey Graham has been talking this way. For a long time Mike Huckabee has been talking about this. All of a sudden it's cool among Republicans to point out the deep corruption of this system, and that is enormous progress.

Is there any candidate who is talking about being a referendum candidate, the way I am? No. But if that did happen, I wouldn't be running against that person. That person and I would, I hope, be coming up with a sense of what the referendum package is, so that one of us comes in with a united Congress to pass it. And maybe even before we get there! The point is, this is only about getting this reform done, and I'm happy to get it however I can get it.

reason: Suppose you don't raise the amount you need by Labor Day. What do you do next?

Lessig: I sleep.

reason: OK. What do you next when it comes to promoting the idea?

Lessig: I don't know. I'm working as hard as I can to get this. If this doesn't work, we'll see what's in store.