Mayday II

11/25/2014 12:03 pm ET Updated Jan 24, 2015

Last month I expressed skepticism concerning Mayday Pac USA's strategy to advance the cause of campaign finance reform. In the aftermath of the election, Lawrence Lessig, who along with Mark McKinnon is the prime mover behind Mayday, assessed the results of its work on its website. Mayday supported candidates in two primary elections and six Congressional races including two for Senate seats and four for the House of Representatives. Dismissing the facts that Mayday-backed candidates were victorious in only two (largely uncontested) races, and that the one incumbent supported by Mayday lost, Lessig is upbeat. He writes, "Did we show politicians electoral consequences for opposing or supporting reform? Absolutely." He goes on, "Did we show that the issue of money in politics can move voters? Yes." It is on the basis of these favorable judgments that Lessig looks forward to the 2016 election with the goal of "elect[ing] a Congress committed to Fundamental Reform." 1.

The two races on which Mayday spent the most money were the New Hampshire Republican senatorial primary, where it backed Jim Rubens against Scott Brown, and the 6th Congressional District in Michigan, where it supported Paul Clements against incumbent Fred Upton. In both cases, Lessig seriously overstates Mayday's accomplishments.

In New Hampshire, Rubens secured only 23.5 percent of the vote. But more important than the low percentage of the vote that he received was the fact that only 37 percent of voters thought reducing "the corrupting influence of money in politics was a major factor in their vote." Clearly it is an overstatement to say, as Lessig does, that in New Hampshire, Mayday "was able to mobilize people passionate about this issue to turn out to vote...."

Over and above that faulty assessment is the lesson that Lessig draws from the Michigan senatorial race. Mayday's candidate, Clements, was defeated 56 percent to 40 percent, but Lessig's judgment is nonetheless favorable. He states that Mayday's intervention forced Upton "to double his ad buy [during] the campaign." Lessig uses this race as one of four in which Mayday's "intervention was a significant tax on our opponent, forcing him to spend significantly to neutralize the effect of our campaign." According to Lessig, "The threat of that tax will motivate other candidates to avoid the risk of a similar fight."

This argument is genuinely perverse. For the fact is that reform cannot be successful if success is measured by funding. There is no doubt that advocates of the public funding of election campaigns will never be able to generate donations that will match the money that the wealthy will spend to defend their political privilege. It is precisely the enormous power of wealth in electoral campaigns that reformers seek to reduce. To claim a victory that because of Mayday's intervention, Upton had to be "helped by a Koch Brothers aligned group," represents a serious political miscalculation.

With all of this said, it nevertheless remains the case that Lessig's basic political instinct - that campaign finance reform requires engagement with the political system - remains sound. He is also right in arguing that "victory will require Zephyr-Teachout-like candidates [who are] passionate on the issue and a willingness among [those] candidates to force the issue into the campaign."

But victory will require more than committed candidates. Voters must turn out at the polls to elect them, something which at the moment and despite Lessig's optimism, they are not prepared to do. For that to happen the electorate will have to be convinced that publicly funded candidates will be responsive to the needs of the middle class and low income groups in ways that the current cohort of privately funded elected officials are not. To win, reform candidates will have to combine their call for public funding of elections with the promise to enact policies that materially improve voters' lives by, for example, increasing the income and employment of those who have been most shut out of the country's economic gains. Such campaigns will require a massive field operation. People will not be convinced by television ads that politics really can be changed. Person to person persuasion will be needed.

What will not work in this regard is an abstract argument about good government, or even one that promises an end to corruption, as Lessig' Mayday PAC does. The public is inured to corruption, having been told by every fresh political face that under his or her watch it will soon end. Ending corruption does not resonate sufficiently to bring large numbers to the polls.

The reform message has to change from corruption to economic inequality, and that message will have to be delivered with grassroots efforts in support of charismatic candidates. Mayday's politics are in need of serious change.

1. All quotes are from "In 2014, MAYDAY Moved Voters and Sent a Signal to Politicians - But More Remains to be Done," https://mayday.us/campaigns/20141107-reporting-back/