Frodo Baggins for President

By Lawrence Lessig

(Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP Photo)

To the surprise of many, money in politics is becoming an increasingly important issue in the debate over the upcoming presidential election. From Republicans dancing in billionaire primaries, to the newly minted reformer, Hillary Clinton, openly coordinating with a so-called “independent” SuperPAC, it is beginning to strike practically everyone as completely obvious that the existing system has got to go. Money is going to “destroy the political process,” as Republican Lindsey Graham lamented at a New Hampshire event. “[T]he most influential people in the country are going to be the ones with the most money.” Going to be?

Yet despite the ruckus, it’s almost certain this issue will disappear come 2016, because neither side has an interest in reminding voters of the perceived hypocrisy in their own support for “reform.”

Unfairly (in my view) but unavoidably (in the view of the experts), voters will not find either of the leading candidates credible on reform. Can Clinton really rail against the influence of money in politics while reporters are asking again and again about the influence of money in the decisions of the State Department? Or will Bush really want to attack the power of “cronies” while fighting off questions about his own shilling for for-profit education firms?

This is not a fight that either side can win, which is why after the primaries, both sides will happily let the issue fade away.

We’ve seen it all before: In July 2012, Gallup reported that “reducing corruption” was second only to “creating good jobs” as the most important issue for the next president to prioritize. “Corruption” in July, 2012, was not merely the crudeness of Jack Abramoff, or congressional bribes. “Corruption” then was the rise of the (then quite modest) SuperPACs. Yet neither Obama nor Romney would make the outsized influence of money in politics an issue in the campaign — since both so clearly depended on the outsized influence of money to make winning possible.

It may be time to acknowledge openly what many have feared for sometime: That on the issue of fundamental reform, an ordinary president may not be able to lead.

The reason is (politically) clear: To win this issue, the president needs a statute. But to take on the influence of money is not to take on one party, but both parties. Yet a president cannot succeed in the business model of the modern presidency — get elected, demonstrate competence, get reelected, retire to the American nobility — by taking on Congress. The enemy of Congress is a failed president. No prudent executive will set herself up for certain defeat. So on the long list of promises that every normal president enters office with, the promise of reform always falls to the bottom.

If this change is going to happen, it needs a different kind of champion. One who can’t afford — politically — to let it go, because success on this issue is the only measure of her success generally.

So imagine a different kind of candidate for president: A prominent, well-liked leader, possibly not even a current politician (Colin Powell, Bill Bradley, David Walker, Bill Gates, Christine Todd Whitman, Jerry Brown, Joe Scarborough, Robert Reich), who declares her candidacy for president, and makes one single promise: that if elected, he or she would use every power of the executive to get Congress to enact fundamental reform, and once enacted, will resign, leaving the elected Vice President to fill out her term. That may take a day, or a week, or as long as it takes to defeat obstructionists. But when reform was enacted, the president would go.

This is the president as trustee — like a bankruptcy judge, taking control to reorganize a company, and then giving up control once the repair is complete. This is the presidency as referendum — giving the people a clear way to speak, clear enough to defeat the certain beltway opposition to any such change. This is the president as Frodo Baggins (remember “The Lord of the Rings”?) — at the mountain of Capitol Hill, taking power (the ring) so he can throw corrupting power away.

This is the president who would give fundamental reform a chance.

And as a candidate, this is someone who could give the public a chance to act on what they constantly tell the pollsters they want, but rarely demonstrate at the polls. Americans say we must “reduce the influence of money in politics.” Yet few political contests are decided on the basis of that issue. Pundits say that shows Americans don’t really care about corruption. But it could as well be because they just don’t believe anything real can be done. The trustee president, however, would be a believable bet that something real could be done, because the whole success of his or her administration would turn on getting that one thing done, and then turning the administration over to the VP.

Who would this president-in-waiting be? Exactly the people running for the presidency now. The trustee is not an alternative to Clinton, or Bush, or Sanders or Rubio. The trustee is just the mechanism to bring about a Congress less bound to the money. The VP would be selected by their convention, based on who responds best to the substantive demands of their party. And after the trustee succeeds, they’d then have a real shot at real change. For in theory at least, they could be elected as president after serving the balance of the trustee’s term twice again, and thus serve for almost 12 years.

The politicians will say we don’t need a trustee. They will add reform to a long list of promises. They will tell us we can have it all.

But it’s increasingly clear that we can’t have any of it. That America has become, as Francis Fukuyama describes, a “veto”-ocracy, or “vetocracy,” and that regardless of which party wins, the other side will have both the means and the motive to block change. The fantasy politics of election time is just that — a fantasy. We’ve lost the capacity to govern, and we need to face that truth, and find a way to fix it.

The trustee president is a way to fix it. He would have the motive: this is the only measure of her success. She would have the means: the clearest mandate a president could have. And in the first 100 hours after inauguration, he would have the opportunity to use the nation’s attention to assure that real change happens. The battle between the trustee and Congress is a made-for-TV movie. For one brief moment, America’s attention would be focused.

A normal president would have none of these advantages. The normal president comes to office with a list of promises, not an item. His or her mandate is divided, not focused. And the inauguration is the beginning of a four year term, not a moment to insist on radical or fundamental change.

Fixing DC is just not the stuff of ordinary politics. That’s not a criticism. It’s a description of how the system is supposed to work. Elections are about a mix of issues; victories come from a mix of constituencies. The incrementalism of ordinary political battles is a good thing. Fundamental change can be dangerous, and radical reform should thus be rare.

But when the heart of a democracy has stopped — as ours clearly has — we need a different kind of intervention.

We need a way to mark its difference, and a reason for people to believe that this time, the intervention would be real. The Trustee President would be different: a referendum that it would be impossibly difficult for a Congress to ignore.

Our democracy will not heal itself. Reform will not come from the inside alone. It needs a push.

America has leaders enough who could credibly inspire us to rally to demand change. It has leaders enough who could make that change happen.

It is time for at least one of those leaders to step up — as a trustee, with the single political promise that America might still believe.