March 1, 2012 · Lessig
I was on @MorningJoe today with @BuddyRoemer, talking about (surprise, surprise) money in politics.
Mika asked me whether I thought that in 2008, Obama was a Roemer-like reformer.
Of course he was!, I said. But then I said something that — in the binary way that is politics today — was understood by many (as the twitter flame war suggests) to imply that I was just a sour-grapes Clinton supporter, still trying to prove that she would have been the better candidate.
So, first: I was, from the start, an Obama-fanboy. I was in 2004 (when I wrongly predicted he’d run (for the first time) in 2012). I was in 2007 (when I was urged by friends not to alienate the Clinton campaign by coming out for someone who could not possibly win). When he did win, I was convinced that he was going to be the greatest President of our time. I believed then, and still do now, that he might be the only politician in America who could rally America to the change we need.
But, and second, I believed all that because I thought that Obama believed what he had said (again and again): that unless we changed the corruption of DC, we weren’t going to change anything. As I described last month in Salon:
[I]n Columbia, S.C., on Jan. 26, 2008, Obama said:
We are up against the belief that it’s all right for lobbyists to dominate our government — that they are just part of the system in Washington. But we know that the undue influence of lobbyists is part of the problem, and this election is our chance to say that we’re not going to let them stand in our way anymore.
On April 2, he told an audience in Philadelphia:
If we’re not willing to take up that fight, then real change — change that will make a lasting difference in the lives of ordinary Americans — will keep getting blocked by the defenders of the status quo.
Two weeks later, Washington, D.C.:
But let me be clear — this isn’t just about ending the failed policies of the Bush years; it’s about ending the failed system in Washington that produces those policies. For far too long, through both Democratic and Republican administrations, Washington has allowed Wall Street to use lobbyists and campaign contributions to rig the system and get its way, no matter what it costs ordinary Americans
One week later, Indianapolis:
Unless we’re willing to challenge the broken system in Washington, and stop letting lobbyists use their clout to get their way, nothing else is going to change.
And just as he had said in Pittsburgh the week before, he repeated in Indiana again:
The reason I am running for president is to challenge that system.
This wasn’t just one of the million promises that any candidate for President must make. This one was central. Indeed, it had to be central. For this promise made every other promise believable. Who could possibly believe a candidate who promised to take on the health care industry, take on financial reform, take on climate change, take on the interests that defend the tax code, … UNLESS s/he was also a candidate who had a plan to “take up that fight.” For as he said, again, unless we do,
then real change — change that will make a lasting difference in the lives of ordinary Americans — will keep getting blocked by the defenders of the status quo.
He didn’t take up that fight. And as I indicated on Morning Joe, I now think that the campaign didn’t even have an outline of how he would. And so since more than a year ago, I have found myself among the “frustrated” that Obama described after his “shellacking” in 2010: As he said then, on the morning after that election:
We were in such a hurry to get things done that we didn’t change how things got done. And I think that frustrated people.
But could Obama reclaim this cause now?
Of course he could, and of course he should, but he needs to confront the issue directly and honestly and with the humility that a once-disappointed-public will demand.
He must tell America (again), that the problem isn’t just the Republicans. It’s the Democrats too. (I’m certainly on the side that says its the Republicans more than the Democrats, but that’s completely irrelevant: both sides are addicted, even if one is addicted more.)
He must ask America (again) to help him take on a system that will always and systematically block reform, whether from the Right or the Left.
He must show America how just about every issue they care about is tied to this corruption.
- E.g.: Our economy is choking not because Keynesianism is wrong. It is choking because gamblers on Wall Street threw it over the cliff. And how could that have been allowed? Because Wall Street had purchased the right to gamble (with a government bailout guaranteed) from Democrats and Republicans alike, both eager to give Wall Street whatever it wanted in exchange for almost endless campaign contributions.
- E.g.: Climate Change legislation: It wasn’t just the Republicans who blocked that reform. It was Democrats, too, who recognized that they couldn’t survive the money campaign that would be waged against them by endless anti-reform money.
- E.g.: Health care: What blocked Obama from getting the health care reform he promised? Again, not just Republicans. Read Jonathan Cohn’s brilliant account, and recognize that he is describing precisely the dynamic Obama said we would have to change if we were going to have “change that will make a lasting difference in the lives of ordinary Americans.”
And, finally, he must commit to clear and explicit reforms that would actually change this system. Not just the puny reform of disclosure — important, but not anything that would change anything real. Not just the end to day trading on the the floor of the House. But the fundamental reform that this system needs.
So yes, Obama will fund this campaign not just with $50 contributions, but also, and increasingly, with donations in $35,000 chunks. But if he is to be a credible reformer, he must promise us that the first bill he will send to Congress on January 20, 2013 will be a reform that would replace large dollar funded elections with small dollar, citizen funded campaigns.
And yes, Obama must now encourage a pro-Obama superPAC. But if he is to be a credible reformer, he must also promise us that he will get Congress to propose the Amendment that would correct the error of Citizens United, and restore to Congress the power to limit independent expenditures.
Sure, many will remain skeptical. Many are committed cynics. But certainly, fewer than if he pretended the issue wasn’t even there. We all get the need for compromise. We don’t get the need to only compromise. If he did this, again and again, he might reclaim what he once held with certainty: the banner of a reformer. And he might even redefine this election to be about something more than whether Madison and Jefferson and Kennedy were right about the separation of church and state. If he spoke clearly and powerfully about the elephant in the room, he might well be able to scare that elephant. Again.
And if he doesn’t, then we outsiders must do whatever we can to get him to. Including supporting openly and strongly any principled and serious candidate who would put this issue where it needs to be: At the center of this campaign, and at the core of what the next government does.