Lawrence Lessig, a Stanford Law Professor, is considering a run for Congress in a special election in my neighboring Silicon Valley district. He has an interesting ten-minute video on his reasons for consider such a run on his new campaign web site, Lessig08.org. In a nutshell, his campaign platform involves three principles:
1. Accept no lobbyists/PAC money
2. Banning earmarks
3. Support public finance
He asserts that money in politics is the *cause* of the problems with our government, and that without these fundamental systematic changes we are doomed to fail at solving the political issues that most people care about (social security, health care, etc.) He wants to start a bipartisan movement to reform Congress.
His likely opponent for the Democratic nomination is a career politician who is good but trapped in the current system. For example, she has received $250,000 in contributions from insurance companies–and she is the state senator in charge of regulating insurance companies.
Lessig’s message appeals to me. However, I think that he’s going to have to quickly translate his overarching principles into something pragmatic. He’ll get trounced unless he can turn his high ideals into policy solutions to the real political problems we face.
In this way, I think it is instructive to compare Lessig to Obama. In a previous video, Lessig makes a compelling case to support Obama over Clinton for nearly the same reasons that Lessig himself is considering a Congressional run for office. Clinton, like Lessig’s opponent, is a good career politician who is too invested in the corrupt system to make fundamental change.
But now Obama is facing new choices: will he abandon the public financing system? It seems that he likely will, given his amazing fundraising prowess. To wit: he has 900,000 individual contributors and is shooting to reach 1 million by March 4. Should Obama risk losing the Presidency to support our current public financing scheme?
I imagine that Lessig would recommend staying within the public financing guidelines. But aren’t the current guidelines hopelessly out of date? And what about McCain-Finegold campaign legislation – doesn’t that well-intentioned law have more harmful unintended consequences than benefits? I worry that Lessig’s prescription is naive, because the details of the reform matter a lot.
So, to answer my original question: how do lessig and obama differ? I think Lessig is more idealistic than Obama, perhaps to a fault. And Lessig is less detailed about translating his ideals in pragmatic policy solutions than Obama. But Lessig is really smart, and he is running in a Congressional election not a Presidential one.
I am rooting for him. I will applaud him if he has the guts to test whether his high-minded principles can really work in practice. Go Lessig!