The political establishment has been doing its best to brush aside Mike Gravel, the 76-year-old former senator from Alaska—and fairly successfully so, until Gravel's appearance at last month's sleepy Democratic presidential debate in South Carolina. After challenging fellow Dems to end the war by legislative fiat—and make it a "felony" for the president to keep troops in Iraq—Gravel saw visits to his website zoom up, and YouTube clips of his debate remarks and even his campaign videos have been drawing tens of thousands of views. If this keeps up, could Gravel's name begin to resonate with the ring of that ultimate Democratic dirty word—Ralph Nader?
Of course Gravel, unlike Nader, has chosen to run in the Democratic primary, with no chance of tilting the general election—for now, at least. Banish the thought, but what if Fred Thompson or Chuck Hagel were to head the Republican ticket against Hillary, with her high negatives, or Obama, whose equivocation could begin to wear away his charm? What would happen if old man Gravel bolted to run as an independent (with Nader's backing, even) and started pulling one or two or three points? Keep in mind that nobody paid any heed to Nader in 2000 until he started running the dread campaign rallies in city after city, culminating in a screaming frenzy at Madison Square Garden. In a single night, Gravel managed to build a buzz among the mad-as-hell crowd. It's not clear how far this could take him—but mainstream Dems are undoubtedly at least a tad concerned.
Gravel shook up the otherwise safe, polite, and predictable by confronting mealy-mouthed fellow Dems with a dreck-cutting matter-of-factness. Commenting that his fellow candidates "frightened" him because they refused to take the nuclear option off the table with regard to Iran, he then confronted Obama with the question, "Tell me, Barack, who do you want to nuke?" Addressing Joe Biden on his plans for Iraq's future, he spoke of the "arrogance" of wanting to direct the government of another country—to which Biden replied that Gravel was living in "happy land."
He might have been the first candidate to officially announce—way back in April 2006—but until the debate, Gravel's low-budget campaign had been nearly invisible. Yet to progressives of a certain vintage, myself included, Gravel is hardly an unknown. During the 1960s, he was somewhat notorious for making public the Pentagon Papers, fighting nuclear testing and nuclear power as well as the Vietnam War, and cutting legislative deals that helped stop the draft.
Born into a working-class French Canadian family in central Massachusetts and educated in Catholic schools, Gravel moved to Alaska after serving a stint in the Army Counter Intelligence Corps in the 1950s. He worked as a brakeman on the Alaska Railroad and made some money as a property developer on the Kenai Peninsula before winning a seat in the state legislature and then the U.S. Senate. He lost that seat in 1980—the election that would send Republican Frank Murkowski to Washington— and has been largely absent from the political stage for a quarter century. When I met with him last week, he wasted no time before getting down to a few admittedly radical bits of business, chief among them his proposal to eliminate the income tax and the IRS and replacing them with a national sales tax.
Though appealing to libertarians—who have made Gravel an unlikely favorite on user-generated news sites like Digg—the proposal is bound to alienate people who might otherwise sympathize with the ex-senator: Sales taxes are considered "regressive," meaning they take proportionately more from those with lower incomes than from the better-off. But Gravel maintains that since the present tax system has become corrupted by "wealthy people gaming the system," his fix would provide a solution; to help the poor, he'd provide a guaranteed minimum income, distributed through Social Security.
Along with getting rid of the income tax, Gravel wants to "bring control of government into hands of the people," by which he means setting up a national initiative system allowing citizens to bring proposals to a popular vote. He insists, somewhat optimistically, that the American people would back gay marriage, if given the chance in a national initiative vote. Ditto on the war on drugs: "I think the American people realize the war on drugs is a total failure—waste of time, waste of money. What's wrong with marijuana? You can go out a buy a fifth of gin and do more damage to yourself."
Such proposals might be familiar fringe-candidate fare, but it is on the issue of the Iraq war that Gravel could prove embarrassing to the Democratic mainstream by relentlessly pointing out that Democrats could stop the war—if they choose to exercise their legislative power. "What we need to do is to create a constitutional confrontation between the Congress and the president," he says. "Most people have forgotten the Congress is more powerful than the president." Never mind impeachment, Gravel says: "That's a red herring right now. It would take over a year to screw around with it." Instead, he proposes a law commanding the president to bring the troops home. In 60 days. "The Democrats have the votes in the House to pass it. In the Senate, they will filibuster it. Fine. The Majority Leader starts a cloture vote the first day. Fails to get cloture. Fine. The next day—another vote on cloture. And the next day, and the next day, Saturdays and Sundays, no vacation—vote every single day. The dynamic is that now you give people enough time to weigh in and put pressure on those voting against cloture." (Here, Gravel knows whereof he speaks: As a senator, he filibustered legislation to extend the draft; eventually, a deal was cut to end it in two years.)
So, he goes on, "I would guess in 15 to 20 days you would have cloture and the bill would pass and go to the president. He would veto it. Wonderful. It comes back to the House and Senate. Normal thing is to try to override and fail. No guts. No leadership. So in the House and Senate every day at noon, you have a vote to override the veto. The Democrats are the leaders—they control the calendar. It only takes half an hour to have these votes. The media will jump on it, you know, `This guy changed his vote,' etc. But then peace groups can go out into the hustings and get these guys where they live, at home, and I would say that in 30 to 45 days they will override the veto. But it's got to be on a clean, simple issue, none of this "go out and manage the war, deal with the funds" stuff. We never cut off the funds in Vietnam. I was there. I tried it. I failed. What you have to do is go to their immediate survival. By Labor Day this could be all solved, and the troops be home by Christmas."
"There's one thing about politicians," Gravel concludes. "They are like every other human being. They are interested in their own personal survival. And that's what's at stake—a dynamic that will ruin their political careers if they don't shape up."
James Ridgeway is Mother Jones's Washington Correspondent.
© 2007 The Foundation for National Progress