CNN's decision to exclude Democratic presidential candidate and tech policy icon Lawrence Lessig from tonight's debate in Las Vegas is drawing strong criticism from his supporters and other prominent voices from across the political spectrum.
The Harvard law professor and campaign finance reform crusader, who is best known in tech circles as one of the nation's top authorities on internet policy and digital copyright law, is running a highly unusual single-issue campaign aimed at rooting out what he calls the corrupting influence of money in politics.
That's not good enough for CNN, which requires debate participants to have achieved at least one percent in a combination of three recent national polls. But despite Lessig's declared candidacy and growing popularity, most of the leading polls still don't even include him in their questionnaires.
"Why are the insiders trying to keep me silent?" Lessig asked in a recent Politico Magazine piece in which he suggested that Democratic Party honchos are trying to stifle his campaign finance reform message. Lessig said that Democratic National Committee chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz has given him the cold shoulder despite his numerous pleas to participate in the primary process.
DNC spokesperson Holly Shulman referred questions about Lessig to CNN, which did not return a request for comment. Lessig was not available for comment Monday evening.
"He's certainly as serious a candidate as those sad sacks Martin O'Malley and Lincoln Chafee, and I'm hearing a lot more about his campaign than about the curiously somnolent campaign of Jim Webb."
Lessig's exclusion from the debate is troubling to many of his supporters, including University of Connecticut law professor James Kwak, because it appears to be part of a pattern of top-down, command-and-control policies undertaken by the Democratic party leadership to consolidate Hillary Clinton's frontrunner status and quash internal party dissent.
The DNC won't even officially recognize Lessig's candidacy.
"Clinton and the DNC presumably don't want anything that could upset her coronation," Kwak wrote in a recent post on Medium in which he pledged to cease donating to Democrats unless Lessig is given "a fair chance at qualifying for the Democratic debates."
Wasserman Schultz has been criticized by Clinton's top rivals, including Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent, and Martin O'Malley, the former governor of Maryland, for refusing to schedule more than six primary debates, and for threatening to exclude candidates who participate in unsanctioned debates. (In 2008 there were a total of 25 Democratic primary face-offs.)
Sanders has been pleading for more Democratic debates, and O'Malley has denounced what he's called a "rigged" process designed to minimize Clinton's exposure to her rivals. One prominent DNC official even claimed she was disinvited from the Las Vegas debate by Wasserman Schultz's chief of staff after she publicly called for more candidate forums.
But Wasserman Schultz hasn't budged.
Lessig's supporters say there's no legitimate reason for CNN and the Democratic Party to exclude him. After all, CNN hosted 11 candidates in last month's Republican debate. Surely, Lessig's supporters argue, there's plenty of room on CNN's Las Vegas stage for a sixth Democratic candidate. (And in fact, there is: CNN says it would welcome Vice President Joe Biden, despite the fact that he has yet to declare his candidacy.)
Lessig's supporters also point out that in the few polls where the candidate has been included, he's performing at about the same level as other Democratic candidates who have been invited to Las Vegas. For example, in a CBS News poll released on Sunday, both O'Malley and Lincoln Chafee, the former governor of Rhode Island, are polling at under 0.5 percent, just like Lessig.
Lessig's exclusion from the debate has sparked criticism from unlikely quarters.
"I think he's got a good argument for being included," University of Tennessee law professor Glenn Harlan Reynolds—a self-described libertarian who disagrees with Lessig on campaign finance reform—wrote in a USA Today column. "He's certainly as serious a candidate as those sad sacks Martin O'Malley and Lincoln Chafee, and I'm hearing a lot more about his campaign than about the curiously somnolent campaign of Jim Webb."
The Bloomberg View editorial board published a piece on Monday arguing that "by excluding Lessig, the DNC is doing a disservice to its party members. One of the purposes of primary debates is to give voters the opportunity to see and hear candidates who have struggled to distinguish themselves."Instead of appearing on stage in Las Vegas with the rest of the Democratic field, Lessig will be in New York City, where he has been booked to appear as a guest during MSNBC's primetime coverage. Despite his exclusion from the first Democratic primary debate, the law professor turned campaign finance crusader appears determined not to be silenced.