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Realism

Harvard Law professor Lawrence Lessig on “realism” versus leadership:

But here I have to get off the bus. For if it is realism that we need, how about this for “realism”: Fifteen months ago, America elected the most compellingly progressive president in fifty years. It also elected the largest Democratic majority in the House and Senate in more than a generation. Yet practically every major reform that this young president has promised is now stalled in Congress. Health care languishes. Global warming legislation is no longer even discussed. The financial services sector has yet to be re-regulated (Congress is taking a break from that while they shuttle back and forth to Wall Street fundraisers). The bold effort to create a Consumer Financial Protection Agency has died the death of a thousand cuts, as exception after exception has been inserted into this the mother of Swiss cheese reform.

Loyalists, of course, blame all this on the crazy Republicans. No doubt, the GOP has pushed the tradition of partisanship to an extreme. But to pin the faults of the last 13 months on one party is to betray an extraordinary ignorance about the dynamic of the fundraising Congress. The defeats of the past year were not forced on this president by Republicans alone. When the House Banking Committee voted to adopt Republican John Campbell’s amendment to exempt car dealers from the Consumer Financial Protection Agency Act (after all, who ever had a credit problem with a car dealer?), it was the string of “frontliner” Democrats, as the Huffington Post brilliantly recounts, that flipped the vote against the President. And when the President had promised that “[a]ny [health care] plan I sign must include … a public option,” (July 19, 2009) it was the resistance of Democrats like Ben Nelson and Max Baucus that made it impossible for his promise to stick.

No doubt the Republicans have united effectively to block this super smart president with a super majority in Congress. But as commentator after commentator has recognized, extremism is an effective fundraising strategy. And whether you’re a Republican or Democrat, the job of Congress is increasingly not the job of solving America’s woes, but instead, the job of raising campaign cash. Who could believe that members, some of whom spend between 30% and 70% of their time raising campaign cash, aren’t affected by this dependency? Who could believe this dependency is benign?

So if it is a “dose of realism” that we need, here is some realism: Connect the dots. The bold hopes of this extraordinary President have crashed on the shoals of the Fundraising Congress. Every single major reform is going to die, or get gutted, until this economy of influence changes. Tinkering is not enough. Returning to the world before Citizens United is not enough either. We need a leader to get America to see that there is a way to recover this democracy, and to get America to demand that change.

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