Thomas Mann recently wrote a scathing piece attacking law professor Larry Lessig's presidential campaign as being no better than Donald Trump's, accusing both of them of contributing to the dumbing down of American politics. I'll go Mann one better: I'll argue Lessig's campaign and his views of the presidency are actually worse than Trump's.
Americans tend to have a pretty distorted view of the powers of the presidency. And who can blame them? They hear constantly from pundits and candidates who describe a nearly omnipotent president who can pass laws, intimidate countries, and boost the economy by sheer will.
This distortion is really being pushed this year. As Brendan Nyhan recently noted, Donald Trump is currently the embodiment of the "Green Lantern" philosophy of the presidency, the idea that the president has superhuman powers and is limited only by his or her own willpower. By simply being a tough negotiator and being unencumbered by political correctness, Trump argues, he'll be able to "bring back our jobs from China, from Mexico, from Japan, from so many places." He'll negotiate tougher deals with Iran, obliterate ISIS, and re-locate our oil that somehow wound up under Middle Eastern sands. He'll make America great again not through any particular policies or appointments or military strategies, but simply through the force of his personality.
A lot of what presidents do to influence Congress is negotiate, and it's not clear what leverage Lessig would have since he plans to leave office as soon as the thing passes.
Yes, these ideas are basically crazy. But in Trump's defense (did I really just write that?), he's talking about policy areas that are largely within the presidential domain. That is, trade deals, arms negotiations, and waging war are actually presidential responsibilities.
This is where Trump differs from Larry Lessig. In case you've missed his campaign so far, Lessig is running on an extremely narrow platform: If elected, he will serve in office until the passage of his Citizens Equality Act, a hodgepodge of reforms related to voting rights, redistricting, and campaign finance. After this passes and he signs it into law, Lessig promises, he will step down, putting his vice president in charge.
This is, of course, preposterous, possibly more so than anything Trump has claimed so far. For one thing, Lessig's campaign rests upon a grotesquely inflated conception of the presidential mandate. If voters were to somehow elect him, he's saying, members of Congress would either be sufficiently scared of the voters' wrath that they would pass his proposal, or he would have such long coattails that he would drag dozens of reformers into Congress who would pass his proposal. Compared to that, the idea of Donald Trump negotiating a tough trade pact with Mexico or China is eminently plausible.
Secondly, Lessig's campaign completely ignores an enormous part of the president's job portfolio while assigning him one he doesn't have. His entire campaign is based on the goal of passing a bill, which is something that presidents don't actually do. Oh, sure, they can propose ideas and lobby and cajole members of Congress and threaten vetoes and give speeches until they're blue in the face, but they don't actually author legislation or vote in either the House or the Senate. A lot of what presidents do to influence Congress is negotiate, and it's not clear what leverage Lessig would have since he plans to leave office as soon as the thing passes.
Meanwhile, passing massive reform bills takes time; President Obama was in office 14 months before signing his main legislative achievement (health care reform) into law. Even if Lessig somehow got into office with a sympathetic Congress, it could still take over a year for it to pass the Citizens Equality Act. Things could happen during that time. There could be a terrorist attack. A Supreme Court vacancy. An economic collapse. Even if things go swimmingly, there will still be cabinet agencies to fill, judges to appoint, treaties to negotiate, allies to placate, pardons to review, etc.
What would Lessig do? We have no idea. In a response to such a question, he answered simply, "Those decisions would be mine. And part of this campaign is about convincing people I could make those decisions well." That's all we get.
And finally, what if the Citizens Equality Act that Congress passes doesn't sufficiently resemble the one that Lessig advocated? After all, the Affordable Care Act wasn't precisely what Obama ran on. Medicare and Social Security and the Civil Rights Act were the products of huge compromises. Would Lessig refuse to sign an imperfect bill? Would he sign it but stay on as president until Congress passed the right reforms? To call this idea half-baked is to insult undercooked pastries.
Overall, Lessig seems to be treating the presidency as a symbol, or simply a bulletin board on which to attach his reform manifesto. The presidency may be those things (and has certainly been used as such by many others before Lessig), but it's also an actual job. Lessig has displayed no interest in holding it. His whole campaign is a gimmick, and this does his reform ideas no favors.
What Makes Us Politic? is Seth Masket’s weekly column on politics and policy.