How many of the eight hopefuls seeking the Democratic party's presidential nomination can you name? Sure, Hillary, Barack, John Edwards-those are easy. There's the senators from the Northeast, Joe Biden and Chris Dodd; New Mexico governor Bill Richardson; and plucky Dennis Kucinich. But that's only seven.
Al Gore? Not quite.
Oh, yes. Mike Gravel.
Actually, that's Senator Mike Gravel to you (pronounced "Gruh-VELL,"which may make our headline a bit funnier). The former Alaska senator served two terms between 1969 and 1981 and was the comic relief at last week's debate and gave a prickly interview to MSNBC's Chris Matthews afterward. That's not unusual for Gravel-he's the sort of guy who speaks his mind, often without a filter. At 77, he's like a gregariously fun grandpa you want to make sure you don't piss off. He was actually the first Democrat to throw his name into the ring, filing his papers more than a year ago, and his campaign coffers would have trouble paying for a John Edwards cut-and-blow.
"I threaten the establishment,"Gravel said at his convention press conference Friday. That may or may not be true today, but he certainly has a history of political rankling. This is the dude who did the most to end the draft during the Vietnam era and who read more than 4,000 pages of the Pentagon Papers into the public record until the Supreme Court ruled that he didn't have the right to do so. He is ornery. So it's not surprising that he has some strong ideas that are out of step with his rivals, like abolishing the IRS and income taxes and replacing the system with a national sales tax.
"I'm not cutting taxes,"he said. "It's revenue-neutral. The real problem facing Americans is that we spend more money than we're earning. As a country. As individuals. We can't sustain that. When we go down, we take down the whole world with us."
He's also hoping his National Ballot Initiative for Democracy-which puts more legislative power directly into the hands of the voters-will gain traction. "I want to empower you as a lawmaker so you can cancel my vote when we have an initiative,"he said. "I'm going to tell people where I stand. Like it, fine; don't like it, there's nothing I can do about it."
A Mike Gravel press conference isn't your standard affair. He doesn't travel with an entourage, so he's meeting new campaign volunteers at every stop. Before taking questions, he shook the hand of every single person in the room. And taking questions probably isn't the right term-Gravel takes topics, rather than queries, and riffs on them. Sometimes he makes perfect sense; sometimes he doesn't. And he can be careless-at one point he referred to spending "like drunken Indians"before quickly offering "sailors"as a substitute.
But that sense of character, the straight talk and a campaign on a shoestring, has won him a few fans, many of whom would prefer to see the Congress truly stand up to the Bush administration in a more forceful way.
"Let me share with you a very, very serious situation that's happening with the Democratic Party,"he said. "I'm not entirely convinced that a Democrat can win office, or that we can sustain the office, and control the House and Senate. The American people really do want to end the war. And [the Democrats] are not doing it."
And although Gravel was looking forward to chatting up House Speaker Nancy Pelosi at the convention, he doesn't think she and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid are doing enough to end the occupation of Iraq. "They all want to be commander-in-chief,"he said. "But the Constitution's very clear-there's only one commander-in-chief. We've got a lousy one, an immoral one, but you can't change that part of the Constitution and let everybody have fun. If they're not very competent in other areas, just think how incompetent they'd be in that area."
Gravel has his own plan for Iraq: bring the troops home immediately.
"Congress, under the Constitution, has the power to declare war and the power to end war. So, we write a law that says you have to get the troops out of Iraq in 60 days.... If you violate this law, you go to prison for five years, no chance of parole. And a million-dollar fine. I think the Democrats could pass that. If there's a filibuster, fine, let 'em filibuster. Reid stands up every day at 12 o'clock and has a cloture vote.... Every day that Congress is in session, at noon, there's a cloture vote. The media will feed on this like maggots. All the guys up for election, they'll fold. So maybe it takes us 45 days. Now it goes to the president-he's going to veto it. It goes back to the House. And now, every day, you call a vote to override the veto. And we let these people who are for the war wither on the vine."
Whether or not his Democratic colleagues will take up his idea is a different matter. "I think we could have this war over in seven or eight months if we do that,"he said. "But that takes a little bit of moxie. One thing about politicians, courage is a rare commodity."
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