Why Lawrence Lessig Should Love Money In Politics

David Keating President, Center for Competitive Politics
Font Size:

Has there even been a potential presidential candidate like Larry Lessig that has gotten as much attention, even though he has nearly zero chance of becoming president? And if he wins, he has promised to immediately quit, hopefully one day after getting sworn in, if he gets one, favorite, bill signed into law.

Lessig’s signature issue is to, well we are not sure exactly, because he is campaigning on a bill that no one has written yet. But one element of the measure is to put politicians on welfare, where they don’t have to work hard to raise money to campaign.  That, and not letting anyone else say much about the candidates who run for office.

Lessig is a Harvard Law Professor whose reason for running is to stamp out the First Amendment’s protections for political speech compared his candidacy to … Eugene McCarthy’s 1968 run.

What makes the comparison bizarre is that Democratic Presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy forced LBJ out of the Democratic nomination for President in 1968 by raising unlimited amounts of money from just a few wealthy donors, about $10 million in today’s dollars, and pouring nearly all of it into New Hampshire’s first in the nation primary. In 1976, McCarthy was the co-plaintiff, along with Conservative Party Senator from New York James Buckley in the landmark Supreme Court case Buckley v. Valeo that struck or limited the reach of large portions of the Federal Election Campaign Act.

A critic of so-called campaign finance “reform,” McCarthy would later credit the lack of contribution limits for his success in 1968. “We had a few big contributors … And that’s true of any liberal movement. In the American Revolution, they didn’t get matching funds from George III.” Later, McCarthy would say that limits on contributions to candidates violate the constitution.

Last year, former Harvard Law professor Larry Lessig launched the “Super PAC to end all Super PACs” under the slogan “embrace the irony.” At this point, Lessig hasn’t just “embraced” the term, he’s living it.

There is little need to worry about Lessig’s candidacy for the President. Most opinion polls show that voters consider a candidates position on campaign finance regulations and rules about as much as they consider our diplomatic relations with Maldives. And Lessig’s last political venture forming a super PAC to end super PACs ended in a disaster that saw millions of dollars of his friends’ money wasted on loss after loss.

Lessig, of course, isn’t dissuaded by logic or reason. And why should he be? He has tenure at Harvard. As far as making the Democratic National debate threshold of 1 percent viability in a national poll, “That one percent of America has watched my Ted Talks,” Lessig told the Washington Post.” Watch out New Hampshire – the man with the Ted Talk is about to put Granny D to shame!

So if Lessig isn’t a serious threat to become president, and his pet issue isn’t a serious threat to become a top concern of voters, then why talk about him? Why care about him?

The answer lies in the breathless coverage given to him by outlets like Politico and the Washington Post. The media, much of which is sympathetic to Lessig, wants so very much to see him make a go of this. They want his Ted Talk to be viewed by 1 percent, or even 5 percent or more, because if the rest of the public knew just how smart he is, there would be a national movement to stomp on the First Amendment and pass restrictions to political speech and assembly that the liberal icon McCarthy fought against.

That’s why the quick rush to cover Lessig is important to note. You see, passing even more complicated campaign finance laws isn’t actually about saving America from corruption. Lessig, the media, and the rest of the left seem to believe that the reason Republicans support gun rights is because of campaign donations from the NRA, and that the Republicans oppose restrictions on fracking because of donations from energy companies. In fact, he explicitly says so on his newly launched campaign website, saying that “every issue — from climate change to gun safety, from Wall Street reform to defense spending — is tied to this ‘one issue.’”

Meanwhile the truth is much less complicated than that. Republicans tend to believe in limited government and individual liberty, so they vote that way. Democrats tend to believe the opposite. And while this may be a bit inconvenient for Lessig (it sure wasn’t covered in his Ted Talk) – voters tend to vote for people who share their beliefs. It’s why Utah sends conservative Republicans to Congress and Massachusetts sends people like Elizabeth Warren to the Senate. Does anyone in their right mind believe that limiting contributions to candidates would change that?

Meanwhile Lessig claims that if he was elected president he would essentially hold Washington hostage until they passed his “reform” proposals. Maybe he’d shut the government down. Meanwhile, what would he do if Iran announces it has nuclear weapons and threatens Israel? I guess nothing, until his pet bill is passed. What if Congress votes to repeal Obamacare? Would he sign it? His ridiculous focus on writing new rules to limit speech would almost certainly damage our country far more than any campaign contributions could possibly do.

Here’s my suggestion to Lessig. Support rules that make it easier for people to raise money to engage in political speech. Heck – maybe you might even make the debate stage with Hillary Clinton. It worked for McCarthy – and isn’t he your hero? Embrace the Irony!

David Keating is the President of SpeechNow.Org, which was the plaintiff in the federal court case that legalized super PACs.