The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How to use a super PAC to kill super PACs

Lawrence Lessig ( <a href="">nrkbeta</a> )
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Whatever your politics, chances are you're among the vast majority of Americans who believes there's too much money in the whole business. With the Supreme Court knocking down one campaign finance barrier after another, money in politics has only grown more central to U.S. culture — not less. Even as the cycle of spending and giving accelerates, it's not clear what, if anything, ordinary voters can do about it.

Except, perhaps, to fight money with money.

Lawrence Lessig is the Harvard scholar who's better known for his work on intellectual property and co-founding Creative Commons, the licensing framework that allowed me to use the photo at the top of this post. But going to Congress to ask for a more progressive copyright regime was a fool's errand, he discovered, because he found that everyone on the Hill had been captured by large, wealthy interests who had a stake in keeping things the way they were. So lately, Lessig has taken to running a campaign of his own: launching a super PAC that would dismantle the modern-day campaign finance system.

Lessig wants to break the resignation he's seeing in Americans. And he wants to do it now. On Friday, the three-month-old Mayday PAC will hit a key deadline; if Lessig and his fellow activists successfully raise $5 million, Kickstarter-style, the super PAC will get a massive match, putting it within reach of its $12 million goal and making Mayday PAC competitive in five House races around the country.

That's the idea, at any rate. If Mayday PAC fails to hit its target — the group still must raise nearly $2.5 million in the next two days — the money gets returned to the crowdfunders and basically nothing happens. To help push it over the top, the Internet's grassroots activism machine is already churning in high gear: In recent weeks, Mayday PAC has been promoting itself as the Internet's superPAC, gaining endorsements from prominent tech geeks like Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, Silicon Valley investors like Peter Thiel and LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman. On Wednesday, the group announced it would even begin taking donations in bitcoins.

Why would anyone support a super PAC whose sole purpose is to reduce the role of money in politics, anyway?

The case for Mayday PAC — and what Lessig hopes will make it compelling both to liberals and conservatives — is that your preferences inevitably wind up getting distorted by money in ways that ultimately don't serve your interests. Net neutrality, tech mergers, and even public officials of supposedly independent agencies are affected by the influence of cold, hard cash, Lessig has said. In an interview, Lessig said Mayday PAC is about making it clear to voters that no matter what policies they want enacted on other issues, campaign finance and our politicians' devotion to it is the roadblock that prevents all other progress.

"If you're in a district where people are upset about climate change, or taxes, or healthcare, or unemployment, the objective is to link it back in a way that makes them understand the corrupting influence of money is in this issue," said Lessig.

The idea of using the system to beat itself may sound ironic, if not outright contradictory, Lessig told Ben Wikler, who hosts the left-leaning podcast "The Good Fight":

But the more problematic challenge for Mayday PAC isn't raising the money. That's the easy part. The hard part is using that money to make a difference.

"A lot of the super PACs waste a lot of money and don't do the proper research about where they can have the most impact," said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato. "It's a scattershot expenditure of funds. Crossroads is the best example from the last cycle, but they're hardly alone."

There are a total of 77 House races taking place this year, which means Mayday PAC is going after just 6 percent of those. Lessig won't say which five races they're targeting, though Michigan came up as a hypothetical example. Nor have the activists been very clear about what it would mean to win besides getting pro-reform candidates elected to Congress.

How the mechanics of the campaign would work is also somewhat up in the air. Mayday PAC could seek out and support candidates who've already expressed an interest in campaign finance. Or in other districts, perhaps no candidates have staked out a position and the PAC would have to spend money putting the issue on the candidates' radar. That would likely require more spending.

Then there's the question of what Mayday PAC will spend its resources on. As a super PAC, the outfit isn't allowed to give directly to campaigns. But it can spend unlimited amounts to promote one candidate over another, or to defend a candidate from attacks. There are even more choices Mayday PAC will have to make. For advertising alone, you can choose from radio ads, TV ads and online ads. You can take out ads on broadcast TV, satellite TV or cable. You can pick the time of day. You can conduct a massive air war that reaches everybody in a market, or you can spend more on selectively targeted ads that simultaneously show one household a 30-second spot tied to gun control and their next-door neighbor an ad linked to healthcare.

For a group of grassroots activists and ad hoc volunteers, this sounds daunting. They've got the help of professional political consulting firms like Global Strategy Group that'll do some of the data mining and analytics work that has become so important to modern campaigns. But with the stakes so high, and with other moneyed interests sure to push back or at least distract voters from the campaign finance issue, it's clear Mayday PAC's toughest days are still to come.

Suppose Mayday PAC convinces a majority of people in five districts to vote on the issue of campaign finance this year, and suppose five candidates make a rock-solid commitment to take on money in politics. Then suppose all five such candidates eke out a win, and go to Washington. Suppose Mayday PAC raises enough money to expand the fight in the 2016 elections. And suppose those reformers also uphold their commitments amid the day-to-day pressures of governance, lobbying and fitting in.

What can they do to change the system?

Sabato, who literally wrote the book on campaign finance, argues that short of a constitutional amendment ("It's scheduled for the 12th of never!"), fixing money in politics would require a mix of small but highly controversial changes: More public funding of campaigns, for instance, or incentive funding for challengers who can show they've got an army of small donors at their back.

Lessig believes the required change would be much more simple: Just pass a law, such as Rep. John Sarbanes' (D-Md.) Grassroots Democracy Act, which gives every voter a $50 or $100 voucher they can donate to their candidate of choice. Sarbanes' more recent Government By the People Act proposes a government match on small-dollar contributions that effectively increases the value of a voter's donation.

"As long as the [candidate] taking the voucher agreed to limit the money he took to vouchers plus small contributions, you would radically change the economics of fundraising," said Lessig.

But that's getting way ahead of ourselves. If Mayday PAC manages to get pro-reform candidates elected, the activists say, the experience will be a wake-up call akin to the moment when Roger Bannister proved you could run a mile in four minutes.

"The basic objective," said Lessig, "is to pick races where, when we win, people stand back in a kind of Eric Cantor-like way and say, 'Holy crap, they beat that guy on the basis of money in politics?'… People will be like, 'Huh, it can be done. We can do it.'"