This article was posted originally on Medium in August, 2015.
The Presidential campaign is officially broken.
Or, if you prefer to be optimistic, the Presidential campaign is now the newest business model!
There are currently 18 candidates for the 2016 Republican Presidential nomination, and a real estate mogul/TV personality leads in the polls. It prompts one to ask, “Where’s the fire sale?”
Is it a problem of Republican identity, where particular candidates resonate with different parts of a fractured GOP?
Is it a problem of Republican leadership, where a vacuum at the top attracts the most prominent GOP leaders to wrestle for control?
No, these are only the market conditions for entrepreneurial candidates who wish to tap into SuperPAC money to develop and promote a brand and secure a career in book-writing, speech-stumping, for-hire punditry, and (fingers-crossed) reality TV spin-offs.
It’s no coincidence that the party known to be “business-friendly” has found a way to turn running for President into a business.
It has not always been this way, and it may be coming to an end. More on that in a bit.
Winning at All (Personal) Cost
Prior to 2012, running for President was a serious commitment. It meant dedicating your life and the lives of passionate followers to seemingly endless campaigning, fundraising, and signatures-collecting. All of this was predicated on one important idea: a legitimate chance of winning.
Or, at least a non-delusional belief that one could win.
If there is little actual chance of capturing the nomination, people will not donate, the national party will not provide funds or endorsements from prominent leaders, and volunteers will not waste their time. The costs in time and money are too great to gamble on an unworthy candidate.
Few have tried to run a modern Presidential campaign off their own dime without political experience, and none have succeeded. Billionaire Ross Perot is the most notable example — in 1992 and 1996 — but he ran as a third-party candidate in order to garner the necessary level of exposure.
Steve Forbes — editor-in-chief of Forbes magazine — ran for the Republican nomination in 1996 and 2000. He secured 11 percent of the primary vote and third place in his first attempt, but dropped out in his second attempt.
Mitt Romney is a recent success story of a wealthy businessman without political experience being elected to a high, executive office as Governor of Massachusetts. However, he had extensive GOP support that drew him in to replace embattled Republican Acting Governor, Jane Swift.
Certainly, wealthy candidates put up their own money running for local and state elections. But a DC post — President, Senator, and Congressperson — includes a multi-million dollar threshold that is too high for most would-be candidates.
Even Carly Fiorina — current Republican candidate for the Presidential nomination — essentially shredded, burned, and buried $6.5 million of her own wealth in her unsuccessful run for U.S. Senator of California in 2010.
The only way to come out in the black was to win the race — until 2012.
The Legacy of Palin
Sarah Palin is arguably the first true SuperPAC entrepreneur.
When she resigned as Governor of Alaska in July of 2009, she was not only licking political wounds from a failed run a Vice President, but was also saddled with expensive legal fees that appeared to be growing. After escaping the bondage of her political servitude, she quickly began culling speaking fees and book deals as the self-proclaimed inspirational leader of the Tea Party movement leading up to the 2010 midterm elections.
She suddenly found herself riding the 2012 speculation wave at the same time people were starting to dabble in the practical applications of the Citizens United v. FEC decision. It’s not exactly clear when the epiphany occurred to Palin — likely around the time Sarah Palin’s Alaska was cancelled — but one could imagine its simple conclusion:
Pretend you’re running for President and the SuperPAC will pay for everything!
Thus began the perpetual, non-committal hints at a Presidential run and the “One Nation” bus tour across America in 2011 — essentially a private-donor-funded family road trip where Sarah Palin kept all the speaking fees while SarahPAC picked up the tab for food, lodging, gas, and Tea Party accouterments.
Palin finally assuaged the country’s exhausted curiosity by announcing her decision not to run for President in October, 2011. As consolation, she offered America “4 more years!” of political endorsements, speeches, and commentary as a Fox News contributor and Tea Party leader (Emeritus).
While Sarah Palin remains a prominent personality, auto-Tweeting conservative comebacks to the “Obamagenda”, her following has waned among serious media and political outlets. But over her seven years of national exposure, Palin transformed herself from a lesser-known Governor to a conservative brand that pulled in millions from speaking fees, media contracts, and book deals.
In other words — a new model was born.
The Next Class & the Outcomes of Unrestricted Campaign Finance
The next round of Republican nominee wannabes watched the Palin experiment closely, noting her successes and failures. They must have realized that they couldn’t replicate her model exactly. The donor community smartened up, and simply teasing a Presidential campaign wasn’t enough to feed a healthy SuperPAC — they needed to actually enter the race.
Yet at the end of the tunnel would be a promising career of speeches, media appearances, book deals, and a bronze bust in the GOP Hall of Fame.
Can we blame them? In the world of business, growth occurs where there is money to be made.
“I can write books, and people will buy them”
“I can become a TV political contributor, because people value my opinion”
“I can join the board of prominent institutions, because people want my brand”
These candidates do not actually have to become President for this model to work. In fact, actually becoming President would ruin the whole gravy train. They would be forced to do actual work and become the person they currently blame for all the problems in the world in order to get attention.
Perpetually running for President = FUN, PROFITABLE, GOOD EXPOSURE
Being President = STRESSFUL, RISKY, BAD EXPOSURE
This is why there are two dozen candidates for the Presidential nomination across both tickets. All of them give speeches and interviews, and nearly all have written books, which can be purchased by the respective SuperPAC as donor gifts to inflate sales. But less than half of them actually want to be President. Each will make their timely exit and transition to the next stage in their career.
We asked for this.
We get out of the political system exactly what we require of it. The Citizens United v. FEC decision permits unlimited, undisclosed — even international — contributions to political campaigns. In the five years since the decision, no Federal law or Constitutional Amendment has been passed to overturn it.
The inevitable outcome not only includes unprecedented SuperPAC expenditures on campaigns that swing elections toward the will of corporate donors, but it also incentives political opportunists to manipulate the democratic process for self-promotion.
This is on us.
The Referendum President
Harvard Professor and crowd-funding addict, Lawrence Lessig, first "embraced the irony" by founding MAYDAY.US — a SuperPAC to end all SuperPACs by supporting candidates that support fundamental reform to campaign finance.
This week, Lessig announced his next tactic to counter the entrepreneurial candidate — the Referendum President.
The plan is simple:
Kickstart a campaign.
Make campaign finance reform the central platform.
Pass the Citizens Equality Act of 2017.
Resign and instate the Vice President.
Such a candidate would personify a referendum on campaign finance that citizens are unable to provide otherwise within the current system. And once fundamental change has passed, that person would have served out their term and step down.
It’s a bold strategy that employs the latest social media tactics greater than any other candidate in history.
And just like the entrepreneurial candidate, it does not have to work. The goal is only to elevate the conversation of campaign finance, since it's not in the interests of any other candidate to change the current system. Therefore, they will not talk about it, unless someone else makes them talk about it.
A Referendum Candidate could be that person.
Bubbles Always Burst
Modern America understands market bubbles. Between the dot-com bubble of the late 1990’s and the housing bubble of the 2000’s, rapid growth in one area is not usually in the collective interests of the many.
The power of the SuperPAC will grow, and it will weaken democracy with it. There are only two ways for that bubble to burst — one involves the dismantling of democracy through our tacit consent, and the other involves its renewal through our active citizenship.
That choice is ours.