A sense of unease spread across the debate arena at the Citadel in South Carolina last night when Mike Gravel, the 77-year-old former senator from Alaska, responded to a question by saying, "The Democratic Party used to stand for the ordinary working man. But the Clintons and the DLC sold out ... to Wall Street. Look at where all the money is being raised right now, for Hillary, Obama and Edwards. It's the hedge funds, it's Wall Street bankers.''
Their financial dependence on big business is not something the politicians of the party of reform care to talk much about in public. Not that anyone seriously thinks Gravel is going anywhere, but his unsettling, blunt comments delight his followers on the internet and give his opponents heartburn.
For a year the Democratic Party establishment ignored Gravel. Nobody knew who he was, and since he had no money, nobody cared. Then, at a sleepy Democratic debate in South Carolina Gravel hit the headlines. He challenged his rivals to end the Iraq war by legislative fiat and make it a "felony" for the president to keep troops in Iraq.
Gravel was all over the TV. Visits to his website zoomed up, and YouTube clips of his debate remarks and even his campaign videos began drawing tens of thousands of views.
Commenting that his fellow candidates "frightened" him because they refused to take the nuclear option off the table with regard to Iran, he confronted Obama with the question, "Tell me, Barack, who do you want to nuke?" Addressing his old Senate colleague 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." Last night he cast a long look down the line of competitors and remarked tartly, "You're not going to see any change when these people get elected.''
In fact, it could be argued that Gravel's so-called tirades, especially on the Iraq War, result not from naivetÃƒ© but from a kind of experience that no other candidate shares. Until the debate, Gravel's low-budget campaign may have been nearly invisible. Yet to older progressives, Gravel is hardly an unknown. During the 1960s, he was often in the news as one of Congress's fiercest opponents of the Vietnam War. In his most famous act, Gravel helped make public the Pentagon Papers by carrying them into the Senate in two suitcases and reading them into the record - for a time, with tears streaming down his face.
Born into a working-class French Canadian family in central Massachusetts, Gravel went to Alaska in the 1950s and worked as a train brakeman and developed real estate. He won a seat in the state legislature, and then US Senate. He was voted out of office in the Ronald Reagan-led earthquake of 1980, when a nearly unprecedented 12 Democratic incumbents lost their seats.
The centrepiece of Gravel's campaign is something called the "National Initiative for Democracy", a scheme for letting common citizens propose laws and getting them voted on in regional or national balloting. The idea of direct democracy might have broad appeal to an electorate sick of a political system mired in soft money, corporate cronyism and partisan gridlock. Nearly half the states already have procedures for initiative, referendum and recall, and in places like California, citizens are fiercely attached to what sometimes amounts to their ballot-box veto power. In one sense, then, Gravel is just trying to spread this already popular concept to the federal level.
In another controversial proposal, so far debated mostly among right-wing Republicans with libertarian tendencies, Gravel wants to eliminate the income tax and fund the government solely through sales taxes. To soften the blow of what many argue is a regressive form of taxation, Gravel proposes a guaranteed minimum income.
On certain facets of social policy, Gravel happily goes out a limb that the mainstream candidates, whatever their personal views, would never dare to test. He supports a single-payer health system as a no-brainer. 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. And if he refuses, he says, Bush goes to jail.
James Ridgeway is a Washington correspondent for Mother Jones Magazine and the author of numerous books including the Unanswered Questions about 911.
© 2007 The Guardian