The Last Best Chance for Campaign Finance Reform: Americans Elect

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The corrupting influence of money in politics is the most serious issue the country currently faces. Should we continue to allow a handful of people to control the fate of our elections?

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The current top three declared candidates on Americans Elect: Buddy Roemer, Rocky Anderson, and Laurence Kotlikoff / Wikipedia & Boston University

There are some who believe, as CurrentTV host Cenk Uygur put it at Netroots Nation last year, "[t]here is only one issue in this country: Campaign finance reform."

Some who believe this are, like me, on the left, and see every issue that we care about -- from financial reform, to climate change, to health-care reform, to sensible Internet policy -- blocked by the corrupting influence of money.

Some who believe this are on the right, and see every issue that they care about -- from financial reform, to a smaller government, to simpler taxes, to the end of crony capitalism -- blocked by the corrupting influence of money.

But whether from the left or the right, we who believe with Uygur believe that none of the substantive issues that any of us care about will be addressed sensibly until we end this corruption.

Yet there's a significant chance that this, for us, the most important issue in American politics today, won't even get mentioned in this presidential campaign. For it is almost certain that neither side will see campaign finance reform as helping their short term political objectives.

Former governor Romney sees no problem with things as they are. Why would he? Having outspent his rivals by more than four to one, all that gold just glitters in his eyes. And President Obama no doubt wishes for a world where money didn't corrupt our government. But after doing nothing more than wish for the last three years, it would be too embarrassing to raise that issue again. A conspiracy of silence thus pushes off stage what we who believe with Uygur believe is the most important issue facing the Republic.

This places those like us into a difficult position. If it is almost certain that the next president will be either Romney or Obama, does it make sense to jeopardize the chances of the candidate on our side -- from the left, Obama, from the right, Romney -- by pushing this issue back into the debate? Is the issue that important? Or should we just accept that this isn't our year, and wait for a new political cycle to raise it again?

This is not an easy question to answer. There is "more than a dime's worth of difference" between the two parties' candidates. It would be disastrous, each side no doubt believes, to lose the chance to control the White House. And that risk feels particularly urgent to those of us on the left: Even if the stalemate that is Washington were to continue throughout Obama's second term, the chance to avoid the further unraveling of the Supreme Court seems reason enough to fight like hell to assure that Romneys are only ever governors.

But we who believe with Uygur must recognize that waiting is not costless either. The nature of campaign spending in the two elections since Citizens United has changed American politics fundamentally. After this election, that change will seem normal. The outrage that now courses through this Republic -- on the left and at least the silenced right (squashed by four to one spending) -- will fade. The idea that 196 Americans -- the .0000063 percent -- can contribute close to 80 percent of super PAC expenditures will seem ordinary. The tiniest slice of the 1 percent will then gladly accept the role of funding America's elections, in exchange for the continued acquiescence by the rest of us -- acquiescence in its dominant role in American politics, and because that role has been privately, not publicly focused, the continued plundering of our children's futures.

If we let this issue go unremarked now, we could well pass a point of no return. The new normal is too profitable for those who control our government. Lobbyists can now promise clients triple digit returns on lobbying investments -- what rational CEO would invest in a better mousetrap when more lobbyists on Capitol Hill promise more profit? And when the average salary increase for moving from the Hill to K St. is 1,452 percent, what rational congressperson is going to make it her cause to end the corruption that is this system?

We cannot afford this silence now. We can't afford to wait. We must find a way to put this issue into the center of this presidential campaign. And the only way to do that just now is the most misunderstood movement in this election cycle so far -- Americans Elect.

AMERICANS ELECT: THE OPPORTUNITY

For the first time in modern history, there will be a candidate on every presidential ballot in November who is not the nominee of either major party. That candidate will have been selected by voters from across the country who register at AmericansElect.com, become delegates, and who reveal, through a series of questions, their own position on a wide range of issues. Those delegates will then narrow the field of possible candidates through a series of online caucuses. The final six nominees will then select a Vice President not from his or her party. Those six then continue to an online convention which, through online caucuses, will select the Americans Elect nominee. (Disclosure: I serve on a noncompensatory board of advisors for Americans Elect.) Thousands of delegates have already registered for this process. In two weeks, the first round of candidates will have been filtered from the rest. And soon after that, the biggest wildcard in a presidential campaign since Ross Perot could be on the field -- except this time, because also on the ballot of every state, this wildcard could also have a chance to win.

Or at least, to be heard. The Commission on Presidential Debates will invite to the debates any candidate who has more than 15 percent support in six national polls. If allowed onto the stage, the issue that is the central issue for that candidate will be then be the issue the two other candidates have to confront.

For those of us who believe that the corruption of this government is the issue these candidates must address, Americans Elect could be an important opportunity: 10,000 clicks from 10 states could begin a candidate in the process towards winning the AE nomination. If a number of serious candidates vie for that nomination, it could get the attention of a politics-starved media necessary to excite the imagination of at least 15 percent of the public. And if it does that, then there is a straight path to getting what we most need now: The attention to this critical issue that solving it will depend upon.

This argument is not accepted easily by many. First is the fear that a strong independent would cheat either Obama or Romney of his victory. And second, among any mixture of sane and (small c) conservative souls, there are plenty of questions about Americans Elect, and whether any of us should trust it.

These are fair and serious concerns, and I would respect anyone who wrestled with them and resolved them differently from how I do. But as I have reckoned them, I have come to believe that we should do what we can to make this chance real. For the risk to this democracy of letting this issue slide is profound and urgent.

AMERICANS ELECT: THE QUESTIONS

In the history of American politics, there has never been a creature quite like Americans Elect. It is not a party, it is a platform. It has been built not to advance one particular set of values; it has been built to give voters the chance to identify the values they find fundamental, and an opportunity for a candidate to match those values. The only substantive constraint that the platform imposes is that the ultimate candidates for president and vice-president be from different political parties -- in this sense, independent. Beyond that, there are no substantive rules.

No one quite knows how to think about this new thing. And so minds naturally race to the conspiracies it must evince. The founder and largest contributor to the organization so far, Peter Ackerman, is managing director of Rockport Capital. The General Counsel has ties to Mitt Romney. These facts lead some to believe Americans Elect must therefore be a plot to defeat Barack Obama.

Others worry about the up to 50 anonymous donors who have "loaned" Americans Elect money to get the system off the ground. What influence will these "donors" have on the candidate?

And then others still worry that the board of directors will override the choice of the delegates, and place their favored candidate on 50 state ballots, delegates be damned.

These are all fair concerns, though none is ultimately compelling to me. They give reason to be cautious, but no reason to remain disengaged. Indeed, if anything, the concerns give us more reason to be engaged in the Americans Elect process.

First, with respect to the potential that the board would override the selection of the delegates: The AE rules are perfectly clear. They say that the candidate will be nominated by the votes of AE delegates. So sure, in theory, the AE board could break those rules, and select a candidate different from the candidate chosen by the delegates -- just as Republicans and Democrats at their convention could change their rules and choose a candidate different from the one favored in the primaries. But in each of those cases, changing the rules would destroy any credibility the candidate might have. A mandate from rule breakers is not a mandate to win.

Second, regarding fears about secret donors: Will these anonymous donors have a corrupting influence on the ultimate AE candidate? But what exactly is the influence that anonymous donors are to have? How, while anonymous, are they supposed to oblige any particular candidate? This issue is fundamentally different from the anonymous super PAC donors in the GOP primary: Those donors gave money to support one candidate over another within that primary. No one believes any donor there is truly anonymous, and the victor in that contest is certainly indebted to those who helped him win. But the AE donors are giving money to support a competition among all candidates in a primary. Their interests have no necessary connection to the substantive interests of any candidate who ultimately prevails. Indeed, they are funding a system that could well select a candidate they have no substantive connection to. If you're trying to buy influence, this seems a uniquely ineffective way to secure it. (Americans Elect can be found here; a highly critical, and hence valuable, feed on Americans Elect can be found at AETransparency or @AETransparency on Twitter.)

Finally, is this just a plot to divide the Obama vote? Has Peter Ackerman spent millions to build a machine to advance a strong Obama-like candidate, weakening Obama and thereby strengthening the chances that Romney will prevail?

Again, this feels like a pretty expensive and inefficient way to do nothing more than create a chance that Obama's base would be split. After all, the most vigorous also-rans in this presidential race are Republicans, not Democrats. There isn't a single serious presidential contender to the left of Obama (though there are some, and some are compelling), while there is a gaggle to the right. If this is indeed a plot to derail Obama, it seems particularly dimwitted.

Still, it's possible. Now that there's a relatively simple way to get on 50 ballots, maybe there is a Nader out there who would grab the AE nomination and give Obama's second term to Romney. And given that possibility, maybe this is reason enough for Obama supporters to wish AE was not on the field.

But here's the critical point: Wishing won't make it so. There will be an AE candidate. Ackerman has built it. The candidates are coming. The delegates will support one over the others. That candidate will be on the ballot in 50 states.

So if there is going to be an AE candidate, the only question is what any of us should do to make sure that candidate does the least harm to the side we care most about, and, for those of us who think like Uygur, what any of us could do to get a candidate who would help the issue we care most about.

AMERICANS ELECT: REFORMERS

The current field of AE candidates includes a few potential and effective reformers.

Among the draft candidates is David Walker, the former Comptroller General of the United States, and perhaps the one American with the clearest understanding of the pathologies within current government spending. Walker's work and writing is truly inspirational. But so far, Walker has been all substance, and little about process. It's not yet clear whether he recognizes the source of the problems that he understands. Or to quote Thoreau, it's not clear whether is he's among the "thousand hacking at the branches of evil" or the "one striking at the root."

Among the declared candidates, the question is cleaner. The current front-runner among declared candidates was also the most experienced candidate in the Republican presidential primary -- Buddy Roemer. A four-term Congressman and governor from Louisiana, Roemer has spent the last 20 years in the private sector, most recently as president of a community bank. Those 20 years off the political stage left him unknown among Republicans. His commitment to a clean money campaign -- taking no more than $100 from any contributor, no PAC money, and full disclosure of every contribution -- left him, in the eyes of most, an unwinnable candidate as well. So despite his experience, Roemer was not invited to any of the Republican debates. He started the race an unknown; the primaries left him only slightly less unknown.

Yet Roemer is the clearest and most passionate advocate for ending the corrupting influence of money in politics since Teddy Roosevelt. He is literally the only candidate for president who has excited both Tea Partiers and members of the Occupy Wall Street movement. He is a powerful debater -- it was his performance in a single debate in the Louisiana governor's race against an incumbent that catapulted him to victory. And his year on the road has turned him into the most skilled advocate for the single central issue that we who think like Uygur believe both Romney and Obama must address. There is no other candidate in American politics today who could better make this case on the stage of a presidential debate.

And so should those who support reform now join Americans Elect to support a Walker or a Roemer?

This is an incredibly difficult question for anyone to answer with integrity. The temptation to make peace with the current system is strong. The hope that somehow it might cure itself, and return to addressing the questions this nation must answer is at times overwhelming. We all want the easy answer to be the right answer. We want the choice we've been given to be the best choice we could make.

But the right answer here is not easy. And it begins with a recognition that we all must accept: America has lost the capacity to govern. By handing over the funding of elections to the tiniest slice of the 1 percent, we have guaranteed that any important policy choice can be blocked by a fraction of that tiny slice of the 1 percent. There will be no climate change legislation. There will be no simplification of the tax code. Health-care costs will not go down. Wall Street will be bailed out again. You pick your issue. Here is the fact: Our government hasn't the ability to decide any important question of governance sensibly. And it will remain that way until we find the will to end this pervasive system of corruption.

If this central issue isn't central in this presidential campaign, it will not be addressed for four years at least. Obama would have no mandate to take up the cause of reform (again). Romney would have no will. And nothing on the horizon four years from now offers any more reason for hope. So just at the moment that we most need this corruption addressed, we are sliding into the dark ages of political reform. No normal candidate from either party will address this issue again. Yet no normal American could doubt the utter hopelessness of this government unless this issue gets resolved.

So I get the risks of pushing an "independent" within our current system for electing a president. Republicans believe Perot stole the election for Clinton from Bush. Democrats believe Nader stole the election for Bush from Gore. It is risky, to say the least, to push a third-place candidate who risks mucking up the first choice for president.

But against that risk stands one clear certainty: That without the reform necessary to end this corrupting influence of money in politics, our government cannot govern. That's not a mere possibility. That is our reality. And the costs of that reality on any view of good public policy are profound.

Those costs give reformers good reason to push this issue now, regardless of the risks. Let both major party candidates then address this issue. If the consequence is that Romney loses to Obama because of it, then Obama will have some mandate to return to the issue again. If the consequence is that Obama loses to Romney because of it, then maybe the next would-be-reformer president will carry through on the reform he promised. And if the unimaginable happens -- that a true reform candidate captures the imagination of America and wins -- then maybe we can finally address this, the most important issue in American politics today. Just maybe.

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Lawrence Lessig is a correspondent for The Atlantic, the Roy L. Furman Professor of Law and Leadership at Harvard Law School, director of Harvard's Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, and founder of Rootstrikers, an activist network opposed to corruption in government. More

Lessig's books include Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Our Congress -- and a Plan to Stop It, One Way Forward: The Outsider's Guide to Fixing the Republicand the recent Le$terland: The Corruption of Congress and How to End It. He serves on the Board of Creative Commons, MapLight, Brave New Film Foundation, The American Academy, Berlin, AXA Research Fund and iCommons.org, and on the advisory board of the Sunlight Foundation. He is a Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Philosophical Association, and has received numerous awards, including the Free Software Foundation's Freedom Award, Fastcase 50 Award and being named one of Scientific American's Top 50 Visionaries. Lessig holds a B.A. in economics and a B.S. in management from the University of Pennsylvania, an M.A. in philosophy from Cambridge, and a J.D. from Yale. Prior to rejoining the Harvard faculty, Lessig was a professor at Stanford Law School, where he founded the school's Center for Internet and Society, and at the University of Chicago. He clerked for Judge Richard Posner on the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals and Justice Antonin Scalia on the United States Supreme Court.

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