"We have an extraordinary opportunity right now to claim a big idea that America can rally around," said Lessig, "as opposed to the idea that everyone should have equal wealth. I agree with Bernie Sanders about that -- there is a terrible inequality in our society. But the reality is, in America, if you stand up and say we become Sweden, America is not going to rally around you. As much as I wish we would, that's not America. But if you stand up and say, citizens should be equal, who is on the other side of that?"
The crowd was not initially on his side. Lessig made a late, surprise entry into the presidential race, saying that he would run to become "the first referendum president" -- winning, passing his reform bill, then resigning -- if he raised $1 million by September 8. By the time he said that, a wave had already built behind the democratic socialist presidential campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). Sure, Lessig had literally walked through New Hampshire to raise awareness of campaign finance reform. In conversations, many of the Salem Democrats said they'd already gotten behind the Vermont senator.
But Lessig, who said he had raised "around $750,000" of the needed Kickstarter funds, got a friendly reception. He showed up for his first New Hampshire event since the announcement in his standard traveling TED Talk outfit of black blazer, black pants and blue shirt, fiddled with a temperamental microphone, and got plenty of polite admiration.
"It was fun," said Cecilia Cassidy, 66. "It was like a free lecture at Harvard Law School."
Lessig had a tougher time selling Democrats on the one-term pledge, especially as he praised everyone else running -- even Hillary Clinton.
"I think it's very promising, and it's very clear what his goals are," said Valerine Roman, 59. "Whether he can actually run for president, I'm not sure. He would win, and then resign? I haven't lived my life to watch that sort of thing happen."
Lessig spoke and took questions for an hour, and the topic rarely moved from campaign finance reform. A Monday trip to Ferguson, Missouri, taught Lessig that too many people were being ruined by petty fines, "taxation by citation," and the lesson was that "the people who pay the taxes are not effectively represented." The almost-candidate cautioned Democrats not to blame all the ills of the system on the 2011 Citizens United decision.
"Democracy was already dead by then," Lessig said. "The Supreme Court might have shot the body, but the body was already cold."
Everything came back to political money, and the failure of current candidates to address it before they addressed anything else. Lessig noted that former Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley had issued a 15-point itinerary for a first presidential term, and "campaign reform came in at number 15."
Exactly wrong, said Lessig. "Bernie Sanders put it at number eight on his list," he added, "and after we made our announcement it went to number two. Okay. That was a little better."
On the way into the speech, Lessig had noticed a Donald Trump bumper sticker on someone's car. The owner of the car, a man unironically wearing a "Make America Great Again" baseball cap, occasionally ambled over to the open dining room to hear what the fuss was about.
"I'll say this about Donald Trump," said Lessig. "As much as I think his views about immigrants are vile -- immigrants are some of the hardest-working people in our country, and in my view they should be citizens -- and his views about women are outrageous; when he stands on the Republican debate stage and says 'I own you guys,' Republicans begin to acknowledge that this money is corrupting our democracy. That is progress. That is hopeful."
At 8 p.m., an hour after the presentation started, Lessig apologized -- he had to make a 9:30 train from Boston to New York. On the way to a car, accompanied by a single aide, Lessig gave a positive assessment of his audience, and said they'd proved Brookings Institution scholar Thomas Mann wrong.
"I thought that they were right there with every step," he said. "They could see the value of talking about this in a more fundamental and elevated wall. Tom Mann says that what Donald Trump and I are doing is dumbing down this campaign -- I think I'm elevating it, getting out of this partisan squabble. The equality thing that Bernie Sanders is pushing -- I personally love it. But I don't think it's an idea that's going to resonate across America, the way this one will."