Indeed, this is a strange, fantastic campaign, in the same sense as fantastical. And there’s increasingly a sense among people who work in technology and politics that we’ve lost Larry.
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The Citizens Equality Act would introduce a lot of welcome reforms. It would impose universal voting registration and move Election Day to a national holiday, so that many more people could get to the polls. It would make gerrymandering much more difficult and convert Congressional elections to instant-runoff-style. And it would take various steps to keep “dark money” out of politics, counteracting the Supreme Court’s recent and infamous campaign-finance rulings.
Lessig has a page devoted to all these wonderful reforms on his website. Many of them are excellent policies! The United States would, I believe, would be a more lively, hopeful, and functional nation if they became the law of the land. Partisanship might decrease; budgets might even get passed. At the very least, our elected representatives wouldn’t have to spend more than half of their waking hours kowtowing to donors.
But the Citizens Equality Act will never become the law of the land, nor will we see a President Lessig sign it. I don’t say that because I’m hopeless about the state of money in politics. I say that because a “referendum presidency” is a self-defeating concept: It takes the familiar concept of a single-issue candidacy and drives it to parody. Politics is too complicated, too messy and unpredictable, for a referendum presidency to ever work—and voters know that.
Let’s run some scenarios. What happens if Lessig takes the White House but Republicans win Congress? What if he proposes his Citizens Equality Act but can’t get it passed? And what if there’s some foreign-policy crisis or economic crash in December 2016: Will President Lessig carefully put that aside while he focuses on enacting his precious bill?
Surely you can imagine some provisional answers: “Well, President Lessig would probably let his vice president manage the crisis while he focused on passing the Citizens Equality Act.” But the ludicrousness of that scenario—“you do this whole global-leadership thing, I’ve got a bill to pass”—underscores the silliness of the whole plan.
I’m going to sound like the kind of D.C. writer who has a little TV in their bathroom that plays The West Wing on loop, but, like, let’s remember how republics work. Political power, especially for someone who needs the legislative branch to do something, requires compromise, and compromise requires horse-trading, perseverance, and sacrifice. As a one-issue president, Lessig will have little with which to wheel and deal. He won’t be able to put the new Space Shuttle factory in Texas or divert some desperately needed transportation resources to Nebraska, all to get his big law passed. He’ll just have his one, precious bill. A “referendum president” would be a lame-duck president on his first day.