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 the Citizens 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.”