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Larry Lessig Is Still Wrong About the Presidency

The presidential candidate has cited Game of Thrones' Jon Snow as an inspiration. But we all know how that storyline ends.
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Larry Lessig and Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales at the iCommons iSummit07 in Dubrovnik, Croatia. (Photo: Joi Ito/Wikimedia Commons)

Larry Lessig and Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales at the iCommons iSummit07 in Dubrovnik, Croatia. (Photo: Joi Ito/Wikimedia Commons)

Last week, I posted a column critiquing Larry Lessig's unusual run for the presidency. The merits of his policy proposals aside, I argued, his campaign makes little sense and is unlikely to advance those policies at all. To his credit, Lessig wrote a post a few days later addressing criticisms of his campaign, including mine. His responses were quite interesting and I wanted to respond to them a bit here.

Where I largely disagree with Lessig is in the importance of a president having a set of allies, both in the Congress and in the larger party.

One key feature of the American presidency is its institutional weakness. The president has a great deal of authority in foreign affairs and military matters, especially in times of crisis, but for most of what a president does and seeks to do, he or she is heavily dependent on the Congress. Claiming a mandate from the people from the previous election is rarely sufficient to make laws happen.

Presidential agendas pass in Congress because presidents have built networks of allies on Capitol Hill.

This is part of what stymied Jimmy Carter's presidency. Carter was nominated at a time when the parties were unusually weak and in which the presidential nomination system was in flux. A bandwagoning strategy, by which a sufficiently ambitious candidate could work the media and win enough early primaries and caucuses to secure the nomination, actually worked back then, regardless of what party insiders might have wanted. The result was that Carter entered office without a set of allies in the party or a disciplined Democratic caucus in the Congress. His general lack of legislative accomplishments as president shows what that'll get you.

This is less of a concern during a time of cohesive parties like we have today, but nonetheless, Lessig seems to be pursuing a somewhat similar strategy. Were his campaign to succeed, he might be able to claim some kind of mandate, but he'd have no real set of allies in the Congress or elsewhere.

Lessig asks: "If you assume it would be hard for me, do you assume it would be easier for an ordinary president?"

Frankly, yes. Presidential agendas pass in Congress because presidents have built networks of allies on Capitol Hill. A president who has risen through the normal party process will come in with an automatic set of allies. Lessig, with no electoral experience, simply wouldn't have such an advantage. Congress would have far less incentive to pass his agenda than they would just about anyone else's.

Relatedly, Lessig seems convinced that he can not only pass legislation, but pass it more quickly than usual.

I can’t predict every case; I can’t promise how long Congress would take. Historically, Congress has given a new president his signature legislation quickly. I sincerely believe we could run a campaign that would accelerate “quickly” a lot.

I suppose that depends how we define "signature legislation" and "quickly." Yes, President Barack Obama was able to sign a stimulus package within a month of taking office, but that was seen as a response to a pressing emergency, with the world's economy on the brink of catastrophe. Economic and political inequality, which is certainly a serious issue in this country, is simply not as urgent. It has existed for some time and, sadly, can exist for a good deal longer. In this sense, it is much like the health insurance crisis that Obama faced when he came into office. The problem was systemic and real, but Congress didn't have to address it on day one, and they ended up deliberating for over a year. Reagan's tax cutting 1981 budget took half a year to pass. Clinton's health-care reform was argued over for more than a year before it was killed. There's little reason to believe Lessig's agenda would be enacted rapidly or that there's anything he could do in his campaign to change the way Congress has historically run.

Finally, one point I just can't let go. At numerous points in his response, Lessig cites Game of Thrones' Jon Snow as an inspiration. This is an unfortunate but telling choice. Snow, as show fans will recognize, is someone who is basically right on all the issues—recognizing the real threats to the realm, refusing to be bogged down in petty squabbles, working to protect vulnerable but unpopular groups, etc.—but is a dangerously inexperienced lord commander and approaches everything the wrong way. He mistakes a narrow political victory for a mandate and proceeds to make a number of unpopular decisions without building a supportive coalition first. His path alienates all his potential allies and results in him lying in a pool of his own blood. Snow's story reminds us that being right isn't enough.

What Makes Us Politic? is Seth Masket’s weekly column on politics and policy.