Jim Cole/AP

Lawrence Lessig Reluctantly Weighs an Independent Presidential Bid

The unlikely 2016 contender hopes it won’t come to an independent run, but he is gearing up for the possibility.

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.”