Lawrence Lessig Reluctantly Weighs an Independent Presidential Bid

Jim Cole/AP

Lawrence Lessig won’t be on stage spar­ring with Hil­lary Clin­ton and Bernie Sanders at the first Demo­crat­ic pres­id­en­tial de­bate in Las Ve­gas Tues­day even­ing. In­stead, he’ll be on MS­N­BC, field­ing ques­tions about the Demo­crat­ic can­did­ates and, of course, try­ing to get his own mes­sage out.

The Har­vard-pro­fess­or-turned-un­likely-pres­id­en­tial-con­tender is hop­ing to el­ev­ate his na­tion­al pro­file and make it to the next Demo­crat­ic de­bate in Novem­ber. But this isn’t what he wanted. Des­pite rais­ing more than $1 mil­lion in crowd-fun­ded dona­tions and de­clar­ing his in­ten­tion to form­ally enter the 2016 race, Lessig has not re­ceived an in­vit­a­tion to Tues­day’s Demo­crat­ic de­bate.

And if his on­go­ing quest for re­cog­ni­tion fails to yield res­ults, Lessig is ready to threaten Demo­crats by plot­ting out a path to run as an in­de­pend­ent.

“If the Demo­crat­ic Party is not go­ing to al­low me to run in the Demo­crat­ic primary, then it strengthens the ar­gu­ment of many people who have said from the very be­gin­ning that this is the kind of cam­paign that should be run as an in­de­pend­ent,” Lessig said in an in­ter­view on Tues­day ahead of the de­bate.

The can­did­ate read­ily ad­mits that run­ning as an in­de­pend­ent would be a chal­lenge. An in­de­pend­ent run could risk split­ting the Demo­crat­ic vote in an elec­tion where the Demo­crat­ic con­tender is more likely to cham­pi­on cam­paign-fin­ance re­form—Lessig’s sig­na­ture is­sue—than a Re­pub­lic­an rival. It would also mean abandon­ing the hope that the Demo­crat­ic es­tab­lish­ment will ever back his can­did­acy and help keep it afloat.

As a res­ult, Lessig would rather not wage an in­de­pend­ent cam­paign. That re­luct­ance is read­ily ap­par­ent. And Lessig seems to hope that rais­ing the specter of an in­de­pend­ent run may be enough to per­suade Demo­crats to wel­come him in­to the race.

“I want to em­phas­ize my strong de­sire go­ing in is still not to be in this race as an in­de­pend­ent. This [cam­paign-fin­ance re­form] is an is­sue that should be framed and raised in­side the Demo­crat­ic primary. My only point is, if I’m cut out of the Demo­crat­ic primary, then I’m kind of forced in­to this po­s­i­tion,” he said.

Sanders and Clin­ton have already made cam­paign-fin­ance re­form a cent­ral plank of their 2016 plat­forms and called for a con­sti­tu­tion­al amend­ment to over­turn theCit­izens United Su­preme Court de­cision that paved the way for cor­por­a­tions to spend un­lim­ited sums of money in an at­tempt to in­flu­ence the out­come of elec­tions.

Lessig thinks that’s not enough. He be­lieves that cam­paign-fin­ance re­form needs to be the No. 1 is­sue for the Demo­crat­ic pres­id­en­tial nom­in­ee and says he’ll be the one to do it if no oth­er can­did­ate will.

He sees at least one up­side to break­ing away from the Demo­crats. Namely, Lessig thinks he might bet­ter ap­peal to voters dis­sat­is­fied with the polit­ic­al status quo if he runs on an in­de­pend­ent tick­et.

“The most im­port­ant ad­vant­age is that part of the base I need to rally is a base [of voters] that has re­cog­nized the fail­ure of the cur­rent way this polit­ic­al sys­tem is work­ing,” he said, adding: “That group is in some ways the in­de­pend­ent group.”

Lessig still wants to land a spot at the next Demo­crat­ic de­bate, an event that will take place on Novem­ber 14 in Des Moines, Iowa. If that doesn’t hap­pen, he plans to de­cide wheth­er to launch an in­de­pend­ent bid or exit the race some­time in Novem­ber or Decem­ber.

In the mean­time, ex­pect Lessig to keep up a me­dia-fueled pres­sure cam­paign aimed at win­ning a stamp of ap­prov­al from the Demo­crat­ic es­tab­lish­ment.

“I’m op­tim­ist­ic that we can build a re­cog­ni­tion of why it’s im­port­ant that these early de­bates in­clude a wide range of par­ti­cipants,” Lessig said. Tak­ing an ap­par­ent shot at Jim Webb and Lin­coln Chafee, two of the Demo­crat­ic can­did­ates who will ap­pear on­stage for Tues­day’s de­bate but who have struggled to gain trac­tion in the polls, he ad­ded: “I have a more ser­i­ous cam­paign than at least two of the people who will be on that stage, and un­der that prin­ciple, I should be in­cluded.”

Lessig will of­fer up de­bate com­ment­ary on The Last Word with MS­N­BC’s Lawrence O’Don­nell on Tues­day. He is also booked to ap­pear on Real Time with Bill Ma­h­er in the com­ing days, and he sched­uled for a sit-down in­ter­view with lib­er­al polit­ic­al com­ment­at­or Tav­is Smi­ley on Monday.

For now, Lessig won’t be tied down: “If I’m still ex­cluded from the Demo­crat­ic de­bates, there’s a chance I might do that [run as an in­de­pend­ent] and there’s a chance I wouldn’t. This is all up in the air still. That’s all I can say. It’s not de­cided.” 

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