2020 Foresight: Mike Gravel, the Junkyard Dog

What would happen if you gave two teenagers the Twitter account of a notoriously cantankerous ex-Senator and gave them permission to run a Presidential campaign? Mike Gravel’s 2020 protest is a fascinating political science experiment unfolding in real-time. Are you tired of watching the contenders play nice and dance around questions about each other’s shortcomings? Mike Gravel and his social media team are ready to take a blowtorch to the rest of the field, with the goal of moving the party to the left. Will their aggressive strategy be able to accomplish this goal?

Amy KlobucharElizabeth WarrenJulian CastroCory Booker
Bernie SandersTim KaineSherrod BrownBeto O’Rourke
Joe Biden (VP Stacey Abrams) • Pete ButtigiegMike Gravel

Introducing the Original “Meme Candidate”

Former Sen. Mike Gravel (pronounced: gruh-vel) is no stranger to being a meme. Step aside, Andrew Yang. The star of the internet’s original viral YouTube campaign video is coming to reclaim his crown.

In perhaps the most bizarrely awesome, esoteric moment of the 2008 Presidential campaign, Sen. Mike Gravel released a video of himself staring into a camera for a straight minute. No words, just his face. Then, he walks over to a rock, throws it into a pond, and walks away with a sense of swagger and accomplishment. It was the original attempt at creating a viral YouTube campaign video; what struck observers as head-scratching was actually trailblazing. Gravel explained it as a metaphor for life; you exist, you cause ripples in the water, and then you disappear. Indeed, this is how Gravel has approached his public life since leaving the Senate in 1981. Every once in a while he comes along, throws a rock into a pond, and walks away. It became symbolic of his entire quixotic 2008 campaign, “help me make a ripple” became an unofficial campaign slogan that Gravel repeated.

His 2008 protest campaign gave him the opportunity to trash the rest of the field, and boy did Gravel deliver. The entire effort amounted to metaphorically flipping the bird to a Democratic Party that he feels is complicit in the continuation of American imperialism. Mike Gravel served two terms as the U.S. Senator from Alaska; during his time there, he built a legacy with his staunch opposition to the Vietnam War. He voted to cut funding for the war effort, vigorously sponsored successful initiatives to end the draft, and famously read the Pentagon Papers into the Senate record when newspapers were prohibited from publishing them. After a long hiatus from public life, he felt compelled to run in 2008 in order to criticize the Democratic Party’s role in supporting the ongoing Iraq War.

Every time he spoke during a debate or in a televised interview, he unabashedly attacked his fellow candidates. Gravel gained a reputation as a bit of a “show stealer” with his sharp-tongued critiques. When discussing a resolution authored by Sen. Joe Lieberman that he described as an authorization for George W. Bush to go to war with Iran, he stared Hillary Clinton in the eyes and told her that he was “ashamed” of her for voting for it. After being asked in an interview what he thought about Barack Obama’s message of hope and change, Gravel described it as “foolish and dangerous, because he doesn’t even recognize that he can’t deliver.” In a debate exchange about the Iraq War, Gravel described Joe Biden as having a “a certain arrogance” for trying to dictate how the Iraqi people should run their own government. His punches weren’t just reserved for his rivals, either, but also for the media outlets empowering them: “they’ll keep dancing around the issues as long as you in the media keep building them up,” he said pointledly to MSNBC’s Chris Matthews.

In a sense, Mike Gravel’s 2008 campaign laid the groundwork for the modern art of a protest campaign. Bernie Sanders deployed similar tactics in 2016 to great effect, using his blunt speaking style to capture attention. He mounted an ideologically-based campaign as the only viable challenger to Hillary Clinton’s seemingly-inevitable march to the nomination, defying the party’s orthodoxy at every step of the way. Much in the same way that Gravel bludgeoned his rival candidates at every opportunity, Sanders repeatedly focused his ire on the existential threats that have stymied progressive initiatives: the banks, the wealthy, the pharmaceutical lobby, the oil and gas companies, etc. The famous “America” ad, similarly to Gravel’s rock video, does not feature the candidate saying any words, just clips of his campaign and the sounds of cheering crowds over the lyrics of a Simon and Garfunkle song. Both of these viral videos effectively captured the spirit of their respective campaigns.

Fast-forward to his newly-formed 2020 campaign, and Sen. Gravel has kept pace with the times. With Donald Trump shaping the national discourse with the stroke of a tweet, Gravel went ahead and gave his unused Twitter account to two teenagers from New York who volunteered to run the social media operation. The guy is 88 years-old, what does he have to lose? To their credit, Henry and David have captured Sen. Mike Gravel’s voice perfectly. And they are out for blood. The #Gravelanche is in full force.

On his Twitter account, Sen. Gavel stated that his goal is to qualify for two of the Democratic Presidential debates and then he intends to drop out of the race and endorse a progressive candidate. I will gladly chip in $1 to register as an individual donor if it means getting to see a grumpy 88 year-old rail against neoliberal economic policies and American imperialism while cutting the likes of Beto O’Rourke down to size. I would strongly encourage anyone who considers themselves to be a leftist to join in the effort to get Mike Gravel on the debate stage. It’s a long-shot, but stranger things have happened.

Greatest Twitter Hits

Are you not entertained? The #GravelGang is throwing rocks at the rest of the field, which is incredibly on-brand for the former Senator.

Notable Policy Positions

  • Mike Gravel has called for political reforms that would allow for a national voter referendum process, similar to the ballot initiatives in California where voters have the direct opportunity to enact or repeal laws.
  • “I am ashamed, as an American, to be building a fence on our southern border. That is not the America that I fought for.” Mike Gravel was against building the wall long before Donald Trump came along.
  • He was also an original proponent of a concept that is now known as the Green New Deal: “if we manufacture 5,000,000 of these 2.5 meg windmills, we could electrify our entire nation. Why don’t we do that?” In 2007, he called for instituting a tax on carbon and a tax on oil to accelerate the transition to renewable energy sources.
  • During the debate about construction of the Alaska Oil Pipeline, Sen. Gravel wanted Alaskans to have an ownership stake of the product. He did, however, support the construction of that pipeline against the wishes of environmental activists.
  • Mike Gravel has stated that he was one of the first elected Democratic party officials to support gay marriage.
  • In 2007, Gravel argued for a health care system that provides universal coverage and equal access to care.
  • He has also called for the repeal of the electoral college and for the public financing of political campaigns. “I’ve got no money — of course I’m in favor of campaign finance reform!”
  • Regarding criminal justice reform, Gravel was also ahead of his time in calling the War on Drugs a “complete failure” back in 2007 and supported the legalization of marijuana. In fact, he believes that all drugs should be legalized. He spoke out against the notion that building more jails makes our communities safer, stating that addressing poverty is the only way to accomplish that goal.
  • Mike Gravel has previously stated that he believes that 9/11 was an inside job, and has spoken publicly about his belief that the government is covering up the existence of extraterrestrial life.

More than just advocating for specific policy positions, however, Mike Gravel’s stated goal is to “expand the Overton window” and force an ideological debate that challenges Democratic Party orthodoxies.

Gravel’s Twitter account has also taken aim at political scientist Francis Fukuyama, who’s thesis that modern capitalism is the final stage of society is “The philosophical underpinning of the neoliberal project.” Gravel argues that this is “in effect: rule by the elites. Fukuyama was wrong. The final stage is rule not by the elites but by the PEOPLE.”

Articulating what he views as an appropriate approach, Gravel’s Twitter account cited John Rawls, the author of A Theory of Justice. “Government must adhere to that fundamental principle of John Rawls — inequality should only be permitted insofar as it benefits the most disadvantaged.”

This is the most interesting aspect of Gravel’s exploratory committee: their commitment to leftist ideology and to challenging candidates who compromise that set of values. In picking Gravel as their figurehead, they are giving the former Senator one last opportunity to break with orthodoxy and go down fighting for the ideals that he has espoused for decades. Even if you don’t agree with the message, you have to sit back and admire the creativity and activism of these two high school students. It’s not every day that two teenagers find a way to broadcast their message to 30,000 people with the backing of a former United States Senator and ex-Presidential candidate.

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