The Nation

Internet Populist Lessig: Visionary, Realist, But Not Running

Of course it would have been great if Stanford Law professor Lawrence Lessig had run for an open San Francisco Bay-area congressional seat on the reform platform he proposed.

Lessig, a pioneering battler against digital monopolies in the Internet age, would have been an exceptionally welcome addition to a Congress where senior members still admit that they don't really know how to use computers. And if Lessig had arrived in the manner he imagined -- as a proponent of fundamental reforms in the way the political process operates – it would have been a great moment for those who want the word of the moment, "change," to mean something.

Lessig, brave enough to take on Microsoft and smart enough to challenge federal copyright laws that are as corrupt as they are outdated, might even have figured out how to get the House talking in a serious manner about the campaign finance and ethics initiatives that are the "dreams deferred" of contemporary American politics. And if his "Change Congress" project succeeded, he might even have gotten Congress functioning again, as a check and balance against executive excess, a chain on the dogs of way, a facilitator of the common good and all the other purposes intended by the founders.

Lessig proposed to run in the April 8 open primary to fill a seat vacated by the death of California Congressman Tom Lantos, a Democrat who had represented San Francisco and communities to its south for the better part of three decades. When he began exploring a possible run last week, the popular blogger explained, "My goal is to get Democrats and Republicans to agree on some fundamental principles that need to be reformed so Congress regains the confidence of the people."

Everyone who has known and worked with Lessig on internet freedom issues and for the broader progressive agenda he supported got excited about the prospect of this campaign. A "Draft Lessig" internet campaign raised $35,000 to encourage his candidacy.

But then reality set in.

To make any of the changes he proposed – indeed, even to shake up the system enough to make those changes imaginable -- Lessig would need to be a viable contender for the seat representing California's overwhelmingly Democratic 12th District.

That was unlikely to happen, even in this year of unlikely political developments.

Lessig lacked the name recognition and the broad support that had already gone to the leading contender for the seat, former state Senator Jackie Speier. A veteran local and state official with solid liberal – if perhaps not radical reformer -- credentials, Speier is supported by California U.S. Senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, as well as San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom. She even earned an endorsement from Lantos, who had decided not to seek reelection and endorsed her as his replacement before his death.

Even as an author, lecturer and legal champion who is genuinely respected in the Silicon Valley, and as a hero of the "netroots" politicos who got so enthused about his prospective candidacy, Lessig would have had a hard time mounting a serious challenge to Speier, who has a compelling personal story, has won elections in every part of the district and has earned a deserved reputation as a serious consumer advocate.

After a little bit of polling and a lot of consultation with friends and allies, Lessig came to the conclusion that, "Certainly, we would have lost this race in a big way." He also determined that, "My running and losing big would do more harm than good" to the "Change Congress" project he hopes that other candidates will embrace.

"Losing big in the first important battle is not an effective strategy," explained Lessig.

That may be true. And no one who is serious about politics will have much criticism for Lessig's decision.

Still, we should acknowledge that something important has been lost.

The prospect of "Congressman Larry Lessig" was energizing. It inspired hope, as does the potential candidacy of anyone so able and so well intended.

Might it have been the false hope we have heard so much about during the course of the current race for the Democratic presidential nomination? Lessig worried that this could be the case, and he chose to guard against it -- which only made those of us who thought he had the makings of a great congressman think it all the more.

Lessig made a politically realistic decision for which he should be respected.

But it's O.K. to be disappointed.

Visionary realists are rare enough in politics. We can't afford to have too many talk themselves out of running for Congress if there is to be any honest hope of fixing a broken system.

Republicans for Obama

Reagan Democrats played a key role in electing a new present in 1980; now Obama Republicans seem to be emerging as a significant political force - at least in the primaries.

In the Wisconsin primary, almost nine per cent of Obama's vote came from Republicans, according to exit polls. Other states that permitted Republicans to vote in the Democratic primary include Virginia, where almost seven per cent of Obama's support came from Republicans - and the Democrats dream of carrying Republican Virginia in the fall. In Missouri, almost six per cent of Obama's support came from Republicans. Missouri is a key swing state that has voted for the winner in every presidential election since 1904 except one.

The next state where Republicans are permitted to vote in the Democratic primary is Texas.

The Republicans-for-Obama phenomenon is a response in part to the Illinois senator's speech about transcending partisanship - a speech which is not just a naive expression of sentiment, but rather a calculated political tactic aimed at winning independents and Republicans. Many middle-of-the-road Republicans voted for Bush because he claimed to be a "compassionate conservative"; many of them are appalled by the war and concerned about the environment; some of them support gay rights and access to abortion.

A few big-name Republicans have led the move to Obama, including Rhode Island's former senator Lincoln Chafee, a well-known as a moderate; he was defeated in 2004, and Obama campaigned for his opponent. Other Republicans for Obama include Susan Eisenhower, granddaughter of the president, and Tom Bernstein, a longtime Bush fund-raiser - he was co-owner of the Texas Rangers with Bush.

"Republicans for Obama" has a website and a string of favorable press clips, including a feature story on Monday on page one of the LA Times . At one Obama phone bank in Ohio, the Times reported, four of the 13 volunteers were lifelong Republicans. One of them, Josh Pedaline, 28, who voted for Bush twice, said "I'm a conservative, but I have gay friends. . . I don't feel like Obama is condemning me for being a Republican."

The Austin American-Statesman ran a story on Monday headlined "Obama campaign attracting disenchanted Republicans; 'Obamacans' could be out in force for the Texas open primary on March 4." The Texas paper quoted Jack Holt, a former marine and lifelong Republican who supported Bush and McCain the past, saying "The Republican Party has become so ugly and so arrogant, I don't want to have any part of it."

However as of Monday the Texas Republicans for Obama online petition had a total of 21 signatures. The Ohio petition had eight.

Those pathetic numbers raise the question: how successful can Obama be at winning Republican votes - first in Texas and Ohio, and then - assuming he wins the nomination -- nation-wide in November? Experts caution that partisanship remains a significant force even in 2008, and that registered Republicans are extremely likely to vote for their party in November, despite their disgust with Bush and Cheney.

Of course even small numbers can be significant, as we learned in Florida in 2000. Obama is far more likely to win Republican votes in November than Clinton. John Zogby, the pollster, told the Austin Statesman, "There really is such a thing as an Obama Republican. This group tends to be politically moderate, tired of bickering and even more tired of President Bush and Vice President Cheney. It is part of the unique appeal that Obama has among centrist voters, independent thinkers and those concerned with America's image overseas."

Obama himself often talks about his Republican supporters in campaign rallies. "They whisper to me. They say, 'Barack, I'm a Republican, but I support you.' And I say, 'Thank you. Why are we whispering?'"

What Exactly Will Go Into the Bush Presidential Library?

When George W. Bush's presidential library opens in Dallas at Southern Methodist University (officials announced the site on Friday), expect Bush to do his best to keep his papers shrouded.

While in 1978, the Presidential Records Act made presidential records the property of American people, according to Bush's Executive Order 13233 (signed less than a month after September 11th), current and previous presidents are empowered to withhold their records--indefinitely.

Last March, an act to undo Bush's Executive Order cleared the House by a 333-93 margin. Though the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs favorably reported a companion resolution this June, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) continues to stonewall its Senate passage. (Take action with Public Citizen to pressure Sessions here.)

According to the Dallas Morning News, a "significant portion" of SMU faculty members objected to the potential construction of the Bush library last year, citing concerns about the library's partisanship. Others were more hopeful: As theater professor Rhonda Blair put it, the library would give Americans a chance to figure out "what the heck has happened during the eight years of [the Bush] administration." But unless the Senate steps up to the plate, such an outcome looks unlikely.

Mid-Day Links

1) The stalemate in Afghanistan continues.

2) John Judis on the American Adam.

3) Today, MoveOn.org launched a new Iraq/Recession campaign, linking the money spent on the war to economic woes at home. It's part of a renewed effort to attempt (once again!) to pressure the White House into de-escalation. But the votes look the exact same as they did last year on the Hill. If there's a silver lining, it's that the Democrats actually defied the White House recently on FISA and haven't suffered much in the way of political recriminations. Perhaps it will be emboldening, but that's almost certainly over-optimistic.

FISA and the GOP Fear-Circus

In a radio address this weekend, Rep. John Conyers (D-Michigan) boiled it down:

The President and House Republicans simply can't have it both ways. They cannot argue simultaneously that the temporary August law was essential to national security, and then turn around and engineer the defeat of an extension of it.

(Last week, Conyers stayed in Washington during the Presidents' Day recess to try and re-negotiate FISA. House Republicans told their staff to boycott the meetings.)

By the way, as a Leahy-Conyers-Rockefeller-Reyes Washington Post oped details this morning, the directives obtained under last August's temporary Protect America Act are still in force until at least this fall. As the Assistant AG for National Security put it, "We'll be able to continue doing surveillance based on those directives." So the White House's current fear-circus is just that: a show.

Feingold to Senate: The Iraq War Still Matters

A warm, hearty bowl of kudos to Sen. Feingold for continuing to push Senate debate on the Iraq War. This week, the Senate will take up two of Feingold's bills. One would require troop redeployment and after 120 days would limit troop activities to tracking Al Qaeda, personnel security and training duties. The other requires the Bush administration to submit to Congress a plan for fighting Al Qaeda globally (wait--you mean no one at the White House has come up with that yet?) and would also limit military reserve deployment.

Getting the Senate to talk about the issue wasn't easy: Feingold only secured the promise of the roll call vote last year after backing off a threatened filibuster of a Defense authorization bill. And sure, there's little chance the measures will garner the 60 votes needed to break a filibuster.

But with Joseph Stiglitz's latest projection of the war's costs ballooning to $3 trillion, it's nice to know that some members of Congress are still paying attention.

Ralph: Don't Run!

Dear Ralph,

Your decision to run for President as a third-party candidate in 2008leads me to resend our Open Letter to you, published in The Nation in2004.

As we wrote then, "you've been part of The Nation family for a longtime, from the day in 1959 when we published one of your first articles,the expose of "The Safe Car You Can't Buy." We think of you as PublicCitizen Number One--a courageous advocate for consumer rights who hasconsistently challenged predatory corporate power. But your greatstrength-- and success--as a crusader has come from working outside ofelectoral politics.

Ralph, why run in 2008, when the stakes are clear, with John McCaincalling for continuing the war for 100 years and sustaining the Busheconomic policies that have ruined our country? To expose the issue ofballot access as a civil rights issue? It should be exposed. But why notuse your pulpit and street cred as Citizen Number One, not as acandidate, to drive this issue, and others progressives care about, intoour public debate and campaign? When the overwhelming mass ofprogressive voters have only one focus--beating back another disastrousfour or eight years of conservative rule--your perceived role as aspoiler is likely to attract far more attention than the valuable issuesyou raise. As we wrote in 2004, by running, "your efforts to raiseneglected issues will hit a deafening headwind."

Then there is the generational issue. I suspect that millions,especially young people who have been energized and politicized byBarack Obama's campaign, who might otherwise listen to (and benefitfrom) the issues you've championed as Public Citizen Number One will tune out andturn off Candidate Nader. For someone who inspired a generation ofNader's Raiders and mobilized a new generation of voters to flock toyour "super rallies" in 2000, think of how much more you could do toinform and engage a new generation if you did not run for President thisyear.

Look around: no one, including former strong supporters, called on youto run this year. Doesn't that deafening silence say something? In 2004,the last time you ran, in a year with the largest turnout of voters inrecent history, you received only 0.3 percent of the nationwide vote--down from 2.7 percent in 2000. And this year, as a result ofbeyond-the-beltway progressives driving their issues to the forefront ofthe Democratic agenda, both candidates pledge to bring the troopshome,to push for national health insurance, to reinvest in America, rollback tax breaks for the wealthy and corporations and use that money inthe drive for new energy, affordable college, investment in education.The stakes in 2008 are clear.

You, above all, understand that until we bust open this duopoly--and its barriers to candidate access and citizen participation--your candidacy may appear to millions as having more to do with ego than changing this country. This country needs Ralph Nader to be Public Citizen Number One--not apresidential candidate after eight years of disastrous war and ruinouseconomic policy. Lead a Democracy Reconstruction project! Become acrusading duopoly buster--fighting to rewire the anti-democratichardwiring of our political system.

We respect the historic contributions you've made to make this a better and safer nation. We know you've never been one to back down from afight. But when devotion to principle collides with electoral politics,hard truths must be faced. This run may well jeopardize your legacy. Ifyou get even fewer votes than last time, the media may say it means yourissues were not important.

As we wrote in 2004, in our Open Letter below, "For the good of thecountry, the many causes you've championed and for your own good name,don't run for President this year."


An Open Letter to Ralph NaderBy The EditorsDear Ralph,

According to the latest newsreports, you've pushed up your self-imposed deadline for announcingyour decision about an independent 2004 presidential campaign fromthe end of January to mid-February. We're glad to hear that, becausemaybe it means you're still not sure about the best path to follow.For the good of the country, the many causes you've championed andfor your own good name--don't run for President thisyear.

Ralph, you've been part of the Nation familyfor a long time, from the day in 1959 we published one of your firstarticles, the exposé of "The Safe Car You Can't Buy."Since then, you've been a consistent advocate for active citizenship,investigative scholarship and environmental stewardship. It wasn'thype when we called you Public Citizen Number One.

We knowyou've never been one to back down from a fight. When people tell youyou can't do something, if you think it's the right thing to do, youdo it anyway. That stubborn devotion to principle is one of yourgreatest strengths. It inspired a generation of Nader's Raiders inthe 1960s and '70s, it helped produce notable victories like thecreation of the Environmental Protection Agency and the OccupationalSafety & Health Administration, and it inspired a new generationof young people who flocked to your "super rallies" in 2000. Theissues you raise on your website, NaderExplore04.org--full publicfinancing of elections, new tools to help citizens band together,ending poverty, universal healthcare, a living wage, a crackdown oncorporate crime--are vital to the long-term health of our country.When those issues are given scant attention by major-party candidatesand ignored or trivialized by the sham joint candidate appearancesknown as presidential debates, we join in your outrage.

Butwhen devotion to principle collides with electoral politics, hardtruths must be faced. Ralph, this is the wrong year for you to run:2004 is not 2000. George W. Bush has led us into an illegalpre-emptive war, and his defeat is critical. Moreover, the odds ofthis becoming a race between Bush and Bush Lite are almost nil. For avariety of reasons--opposition to the war, Bush's assault on theConstitution, his crony capitalism, frustration with the overcautiousand indentured approach of inside-the-Beltway Democrats--there is alevel of passionate volunteerism at the grassroots of the DemocraticParty not seen since 1968.

The context for an independentpresidential bid is completely altered from 2000, when there was areal base for a protest candidate. The overwhelming mass of voterswith progressive values--who are essential to all efforts to build aforce that can change the direction of the country--have only onefocus this year: to beat Bush. Any candidacy seen as distracting fromthat goal will be excoriated by the entire spectrum of potentiallyprogressive voters. If you run, you will separate yourself, probablyirrevocably, from any ongoing relationship with this energized massof activists. Look around: Almost no one, including former strongsupporters, is calling for you to run, compared with past years whenmany veteran organizers urged you on.

If you run, yourefforts to raise neglected issues will hit a deafening headwind. Themedia will frame you as The Spoiler. It's also safe to predict thatyou will get far fewer votes than the 2.8 million you garnered in2000, and not only because your rejection of the Green Party raisesexpensive new hurdles to getting your name on state ballots. A recentonline survey by the progressive news site AlterNet.org found thatonly one in nine respondents said they'd vote for you if you run thisyear, a 60 percent drop-off from the number who said they voted foryou in 2000. If you run and get a million votes or fewer, the mediawill say it means your issues were not important. This can only hurtthose causes, not to mention the tangible costs another run mayimpose on the many public-interest groups tied to you.

Youhave said your candidacy could actually help Democrats by raisingissues against Bush that a Democratic candidate would avoid and byboosting turnout for good candidates for the House and Senate, wherethe slender bulwarks against Bushism must be reinforced. But thesearguments do not compel a candidacy by you. As a public citizenfighting for open debates and rallying voters to support progressiveDemocrats for Congress, or good independents or Greens for thatmatter, you can have a far more productive impact than as a candidatedealing with recriminations about being a spoiler or, worse, anegotist. And the very progressives distressed by the prospect of yourcandidacy would contribute eagerly to have that voiceamplified.

And if you think that this year you can help theanti-Bush cause by running and peeling off disgruntled Republicans,McCainiacs, Perotistas and the like while not disrupting theDemocratic charge, please be honest with yourself. Once upon a time,maybe as late as 1992, when you dallied with a "none of the above"campaign and got 2 percent of the vote in New Hampshire fromwrite-ins in both the Democratic and Republican primaries, yourappeal stretched across the political spectrum. No longer, alas. Yournephew, Tarek Milleron, wrote recently that if you run in 2004 itwill be "the year of the Elks clubs, the garden clubs, meetings withformer Enron employees, the veterans groups, Wal-Mart employees," notprogressive super rallies. But how many Elks club presidents areinviting you to speak? How many veterans groups? Such relationshipstake time to build and can't be conjured out of thin air in the midstof a presidential campaign.

You once told us you play chessat many levels at once. For all we know, you're thinking of runninghard and then, if the race is close, throwing your support to theDemocrat in the final days. While such a tactic might make for asatisfying conclusion to an otherwise futile quest, we don't think itjustifies the risks, antagonism, confusion and contortions that sucha run would entail.

Ralph, please think of the long term. Don't run.

No Link Between Poison and Agent Orange

It's not easy suing big and powerful U.S. companies on U.S. soil and under the U.S. court system.

But even after Vietnamese plaintiffs were rebuffed last Friday when New York's US Court of Appeals dismissed their claims against Dow Chemical Company, Monsanto and nearly 30 other manufacturers of "Agent Orange," they're not giving up. Their next stage of appeal is likely to be the U.S. Supreme Court.

While in 1984, seven companies (including Dow and Monsanto) agreed to a $180 million settlement with U.S. veterans who suffered from Agent Orange, no Vietnamese has ever received compensation. The United States maintains there is no scientifically proven link between the 79 million liters of Agent Orange the U.S. dropped during the Vietnam War and the dioxin poisoning of over 3 million Vietnamese.

The U.S. government is also claiming sovereign immunity in the case.

Still Guarding the (Hen)House

It's a peculiar notion, the idea that only members of Congress should be able to bring ethics complaints against other Congressmen. But well over a year after the Democrats stormed Capitol Hill promising ethics reform, that's precisely the way Congress continues to function.

Such insular self-policing, not surprisingly, lends itself to discipline both spotty and toothless. Take, for example, the "bipartisan letter of admonition" the Senate issued this month to Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho), which did no more than chide the lately discomfited official for his actions--which, beyond his 'lewd conduct' in an airport bathroom, included the dubious use of $213,000 in campaign contributions to fund his legal defense associated with the incident.

House investigations are still more limp-handed. Last May, House Democrats voted along party lines to block the censure of Rep. John Murtha (D-Pennsylvania), who stood accused of violating a new ethics rule that prohibits lawmakers from swapping votes for pork.

Last week, however, the criminal indictment of Rep. Rick Renzi (R-Az.) seemed to revive the House momentum for reform. "I think the time has come to have an independent entity," said Rep. Michael Capuano (D-Mass), who heads the House taskforce exploring the creation of an independent ethics panel.

After scads of bipartisan scandals, with Congress's approval ratings languishing at 22%, most Americans long ago reached that conclusion.