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Larry Lessig announces he's running for president: "What we have has failed"

Lawrence Lessig.
Lawrence Lessig.
Sandra Dahdah / Getty
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

  1. Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard law professor and campaign finance reform activist, officially announced Wednesday that he will run for president as a Democrat.
  2. The announcement, made at an event in Claremont, New Hampshire, comes after a month-long exploratory phase in which Lessig met his goal of raising more than $1 million.
  3. Lessig's campaign is most noteworthy for his extremely unusual — really, unprecedented — platform. If he's elected, he says, he'll focus overwhelmingly on passing one piece of legislation, and then resign from the presidency once it's enacted.
  4. This major reform bill isn't finalized — Lessig plans to "crowdsource" some of its details — but it will include campaign finance reform, new policies intended to make voting easier, and an overhaul of how members of the House of Representatives are elected.

Lessig wants to be a "referendum president"

Lessig's unorthodox candidacy is born out of his great frustration at the US political system — and his belief that a "hack" of that system, involving a promise of the president's own resignation, is needed to fix it.

His platform is so unusual, he says, because he believes the only way a new president will have a mandate for major reform "is if there's no ambiguity about why he or she is there. And that would only happen if this were the exclusive issue the candidate ran on."

His idea is that focusing the presidential race on just one issue would essentially turn it into a "referendum" on his proposed reform bill. Members of Congress would be forced to take a position on it, and — if he wins — it will make it unmistakably clear to them that the public has endorsed his reforms, he thinks.

That's why Lessig is unsatisfied with the campaign of Bernie Sanders, another outsider candidate who supports major campaign finance reform. He thinks Sanders is focusing on too many different issues, which will make it easy for Congress to block his proposals once he's in office.

An uncertain prospect

The last time Lessig tried his hand at politics, in the 2014 election cycle, it didn't work out too well. He started and raised over $10 million for Mayday PAC — a Super PAC that wanted to end Super PACs, and would spend money on candidates who supported campaign finance reform.

In the end, Lessig wrote, "We lost. Badly." The candidates he backed overwhelmingly went down to defeat. The problem he never managed to solve was the polarization of the issue nationally. When Mayday backed a campaign finance reform-supporting primary opponent to New Hampshire Senate candidate Scott Brown, Mayday hoped the challenger's victory would prove that Republican voters care about the issue. Instead, Brown won easily. Democratic reformers Lessig backed in the general election also succumbed to the GOP wave.

With his presidential candidacy, Lessig is trying a new approach on an even bigger stage. Yet it's still not entirely clear how he could spur action from a Congress, and particularly a House of Representatives, that opposes campaign finance reform and is responsive to voters in its members' states or districts, not a national electorate. (Lessig has suggested that he would recruit candidates to challenge recalcitrant members of Congress, but of course, similar challenges didn't turn out too well in 2014.)

Indeed, during the announcement, Lessig acknowledged that there was a great deal of "uncertainty" about whether his idea could actually work. But he brought up the Founding Fathers' creation of the US government as a similarly uncertain prospect. "When they did that, nobody knew if it would work," Lessig said. "But what they knew is what they had had failed. That's what I know. What we have has failed."