Harvard professor and potential 2016 White House hopeful Lawrence Lessig is grateful for Donald Trump.
Lessig may soon jump into the presidential race as a Democrat and deplores many of the things that Trump has said so far on the campaign trail. But Lessig is on a mission to make campaign finance reform the No. 1 fight of the 2016 race. And the academic-turned-activist loves that Trump is taking advantage of the copious media spotlight he's been afforded to attack the influence of money in politics.
"I'm happy to concede that he is the most influential person on this issue right now," Lessig told National Journal in an interview. "He has been the most influential because he's Donald Trump. I'm not Donald Trump. I haven't been on national television and some crazy reality TV show, I haven't had the success he has had ... What I'm saying is someone with that prominence taking on this issue has elevated it in a way that reformers who don't have that stage can't."
Trump has been quick to call money in politics a problem. The real estate mogul declared his "love" for "the idea of campaign finance reform" in New Hampshire on Friday. Standing on the main stage for the first GOP prime-time presidential debate, he proclaimed that "our system is broken" when asked about his own political donations. Trump has also gone out of his way to paint Republican rival Jeb Bush as "a puppet" beholden to mega-donors.
In short: While the two White House hopefuls may not agree on much, Lessig believes that Trump's willingness to speak out has helped the cause for campaign finance reform.
As Lessig works to boost his own name recognition—a necessary ingredient for the long-shot presidential contender to climb high enough in national polls to make the first Democratic debate in October—invoking Trump's record is also likely to win him attention. (If that happens, Lessig will join nearly the entire field of Republican contenders who have grabbed headlines for their reactions to the outspoken real estate mogul.)
Trump has attracted a flood of media coverage. His willingness to talk about money in politics virtually guarantees that the fight for reform will also get attention. Trump's stamp of approval could also lend reform a kind of credibility with Republican voters that any effort on the left to kick-start a national conversation would be hard pressed to achieve.
"Having spoken about it the way that he has spoken about it will certainly elevate it in the Republican and Democratic debates," Lessig said. "He has made it possible as a Republican to talk about this and be concerned about it ... I think it will really press the issue among Republicans."
Lessig, though, has built his potential 2016 bid on a highly specific prescription for campaign finance reform. And in much the same way that he remains unconvinced that any of the Democrats running for the White House will be able to fix the problem, Lessig believes that Trump's campaign promises fall far short of what's needed to enact reform.
Trump has signaled that he may be open to supporting legislation to reform America's campaign finance laws. But he has yet to outline an agenda to tackle the influence of money in politics. For now, Trump seems content to cast himself as the rare candidate who is not beholden to special interests, since he has so much of his own money to burn in support of a 2016 bid.
And that, Lessig says, simply is not a good solution.
"He reinforces the idea on the right and the left to say that we've got to deal with this, but Donald's solution is to elect billionaires," Lessig said, offering up a criticism of the real estate tycoon that conveniently allowed him to advertise his own agenda for reform. "That's not my solution ... We need to change the way that campaigns are funded and restore political and economic equality."
Even though he is evidently following Trump's turn in the national spotlight, Lessig said he has not had any contact with the presidential contender's campaign. (The Trump campaign did not immediately return a request for comment.)
Lessig has said that he will run for president if he can raise $1 million by Labor Day as the result of a crowdfunded campaign. If he meets that high water mark, the Harvard professor plans to jump into the Democratic presidential field as a "referendum candidate," hoping to elevate campaign finance reform on the trail.
As of Monday evening, Lessig had raised $381,224 from 3,563 donors with 21 days left to go.
In the unlikely event that he makes it to the White House, Lessig promises to tackle the problem of money in politics by passing a series of reforms that would reform the way elections are paid for, end gerrymandering, and guarantee all Americans an equal right to vote.
Hillary Clinton, the leading Democratic contender, has pledged to rein in the influence of money in politics if she becomes the next president. Bernie Sanders, Clinton's challenger on the left, has also made getting big money out of politics a pillar of his campaign.
But Lessig says that none of the Democratic candidates have shown that they would make campaign-finance-reform their No.1 agenda item. And he believes that Trump has done more than any Democratic presidential candidate to elevate campaign finance reform—in part, Lessig says, because when Trump talks, there is an element of surprise.
"He surprised people ... and I think the Democrats when they talk about this issue, they surprise nobody," Lessig said. "People believe he is credible on this ... The press is constantly obsessing about the idea—how can people like Donald Trump when he has these horrendous views about immigrants and women, how can they love him? I think the answer is people are so desperate for someone they believe is actually independent that they're willing to put up with the [other] views."
But while Lessig thinks that Trump's high-profile persona helps the cause, he has no plans of ceding any ground when it comes to convincing voters how campaign finance laws should be reformed.
Despite speculation that his campaign will stall out, the Harvard professor insists that he is taking steps to plot out a serious run for the presidency. On Friday, Lessig's exploratory campaign announced that Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales had signed on as committee chairman. Lessig added that his team plans to open field offices in states such as New Hampshire and Iowa, though that strategy remains contingent on Lessig's ability to meet his small-dollar fundraising deadline.
The Harvard professor also has his sights set squarely on making it to the first Democratic debate, an event that would allow Lessig a major opportunity to spell out his agenda and press for reform. But to make it to the main stage, Lessig readily admits, his campaign will need to generate some buzz.
"Obviously we're doing everything we can to get there and I'm doing everything I can to be prepared," Lessig said, adding: "To get to that, we have to do a couple of pretty critical things. We've got to hit our funding goal and be in public enough so that people see exactly the potential here and are willing to express their support for me in polls."
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