Larry Lessig’s campaign ran into a series of problems, the last and decisive one being his failure to qualify for inclusion in the debates. Earlier he had founded a Super PAC to establish that a well-funded campaign finance advocacy could swing an election. It did not work out as planned.  He also tried out unsuccessfully a referendum candidacy that featured a pledge that he would not serve a full term, only as long as necessary to effect his reform program, after which he would turn the reins over to his vice president.  He found that voters did not respond well to that message.

In each instance, much to his credit, Lessig explained openly the reversals he had suffered.  In the case of the debates, he blames the party debate inclusion criteria, but in the others, he confessed error or miscalculation.  He never doubted the cause, but has acknowledged the problems with his campaign.

Perhaps, however, the cause he champions, while an important part of a campaign, is not sufficient to carry it. The platform on which Lessig was running – – that campaign finance must be fixed “first”, before anything else can be done – – may simply lack persuasive force. The fatal flaw revealed by each of his successive disappointments seems to have been just this single-mindedness. The super PAC was supposed to show that this issue alone was a winning issue; the referendum presidency he offered was to be so exclusively concerned with campaign finance, that the referendum president would resign his post as soon as he met with success on only that one policy initiative.

Professor Lessig and his allies may respond that with an opportunity to make his case in debates, he could have demonstrated the decisive appeal of this issue.  Maybe, but there is reason to doubt it.  He had tested this proposition in his experiment with the Super PAC, and he had polled it when exploring voter reaction to the limited-term referendum presidency. The results were not promising.  Campaign finance has its limits as single-issue politics.  (And even if his poll suggested voter enthusiasm for reform as a central issue in a campaign, “central” is not “exclusive.”)

If money in politics is neither Cause nor Crusade, if it is not pronounced the key to all other problems, it remains a significant question of public policy.  Viewing it that way does not minimize its importance.  In fact, tempered rhetoric and a down-to-earth policy focus may help to move the discussion along.

Reform skeptics have responded poorly to the reformers’ excited portrayal of the stakes: pervasive “corruption” and the like, accompanied by aggressive constitutional positions and heavy-handed legislative or regulatory proposals.  The language of crisis has not made reasoned debated easier, only harder. It has also exacted a cost in the movement’s credibility, as claims are made that, with reform, we will see transformative change in policy and government performance.  There is little evidence for this, and few believe it.

But it is not difficult to make the case that campaign finance is a legitimate concern of public policy.  Even within the constitutional boundaries of Buckley, as interpreted by the current Court, there is room for constructive reform.  The regulatory system–if “system” is an accurate term for it–falls short on key measures of coherence, clarity, policy design, and fairness.

This project can be embraced without any suggestion that the fate of the Republic hangs in the balance, or that the answer to this problem will lead the way to the solution of all others. It is still serious work.  Larry Lessig, who plainly cares a great deal about it, has a valuable contribution to make, and he doesn’t have to be a referendum candidate for president to make it.

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