Mike Gravel does not want your vote. However, he would appreciate your donations.
On March 19th, the long-retired Alaskan senator declared his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination. Instead of a well-rehearsed speech delivered to a carefully vetted audience, the surprise announcement took the form of a short tweet: #Gravel2020. Furthermore, the tweet – which was delivered at 3:49 A.M. – was not even sent by the senator himself. The authors are teenagers David Oks and Henry Williams, who in a stroke of serendipity had learned of Gravel only a week earlier while listening to the far-left podcast Chapo Trap House. In the aftermath of #Gravel2020, the two students explained that Gravel would not be running to win, but rather to shift the Overton Window to the left. His goal was to collect enough donations to qualify for the summer debates, where he would aggressively pressure the Democratic hopefuls to adopt a progressive domestic agenda and a non-interventionist foreign policy before dropping out in the fall. After his exit, Gravel plans to endorse the most liberal candidate and donate all of his campaign funds to Flint, Michigan.
Everything about Gravel’s campaign is unorthodox, but the same can be said about the senator’s career. Only a decade after moving from New York to pre-statehood Alaska, Gravel was elected to the Senate in 1968. Once on capitol hill, he quickly gained a reputation as an unabashed progressive and a staunch opponent of the Vietnam War: political scientist Alan Abramowitz has since described him as “a maverick, if not an eccentric.” Gravel received national attention in 1971 when he read the Pentagon Papers into the Congressional Record at great personal risk. Following an unusual (and nearly successful) campaign for vice president in 1972, Gravel remained in the Senate for eight more years before being defeated in a 1980 primary.
After nearly three decades of quietly lobbying for direct democracy as a private citizen, the 75 year old Gravel reemerged in 2006 as a presidential candidate. His longshot campaign made extensive use of the then relatively-new medium of YouTube. Clips of his fiery debate performances and avant-garde campaign ads were regularly the most popular content on the website. Gravel even released a spoof of Soulja Boy’s “Crank That.”
Gravel’s 2008 bid can hardly be dismissed as quixotic, however. He resented the suggestion that his campaign was a distraction, and stormed off from an interview after pejoratively being labeled the “left-wing fringe candidate.” In a primary dominated by centrists, Gravel served an important purpose as an authentic progressive voice: he needled his opponents on their Iraq War votes, demanded the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and provocatively asked Obama who he would nuke once president. Although his impassioned rhetoric and viral videos never translated into political support –- he peaked at about two percent –- his campaign was impressive in that it was able to generate significant interest in a virtually unknown, long-time retired politician from Alaska.
Ironically, Gravel is better poised to succeed now as a non-candidate than he ever was in 2008. By preemptively removing himself from the straitjacket of electability, Gravel has created a lane for himself in the highly-saturated Democratic field –- one that plays to his unique strengths.
The slippery concept of electability has colored nearly every 2020 discussion. Democratic voters have become increasingly willing to sacrifice ideological purity in order to defeat Donald Trump: 56 percent of respondents to a January poll placed electability at a premium. Consequently, moderate Joe Biden has maintained a steady lead while candidates dubbed unelectable like Elizabeth Warren have fallen behind. The purposely vacuous campaign being run by Beto O’Rourke is perhaps the clearest manifestation of the Democratic Party’s fixation on electability.
Gravel has simply removed the electability question from the equation. On April 2nd, Gravel succinctly explained how he was reframing the race by promising to drop out after the debates: “this campaign is about changing the conversation in the Democratic party… forcing centrists to confront the immorality of our imperial projects and the undemocratic system we live under.” Instead of mollifying his progressive positions to appease the party, he has doubled down on issues like reparations and the abolition of the death penalty. The extensive and crowd-sourced platform available on Gravel’s website is filled with far-left planks intended to generate conversation, including term limits for federal judges, national ranked choice voting, and adoption of the Wyoming Rule. Similar in concept but ideologically distinct from John B. Anderson’s “campaign of ideas” in 1980, Gravel’s candidacy forces his mainstream opponents to confront a broader variety of policies.
The Alaskan senator is ideally suited to fill the role of the instigator. Not even his spirited debate performances in 2008 served as adequate foreshadowing for the confrontational approach his campaign has taken thus far. No longer constrained by electoral considerations, a completely unfiltered Gravel has surfaced. In less than a month, Gravel’s twitter account has called media darling Pete Buttigieg narcissistic, described the term “Beto policy idea” as an oxymoron, and christened John McCain “the bad cop from Three Billboards.” While stinging, his name-calling is ultimately motivated by a sincere desire to root out establishment politicians and push the party left. According to Gravel, “what’s the point of a primary devoid of attacks and criticisms on candidates’ records and views?” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s recent success at moving the Overton Window on environmental policy serves as a proof-of-concept for how ambitious proposals, social media, and pointed rhetoric can successfully shift public opinion. Gravel, an admirer of Ocasio-Cortez, appears to have already embraced the strategy.
Logistically, an abbreviated campaign also makes sense for Gravel. By the time the primaries rolled around in 2008, his campaign was strapped for cash and the excitement that had previously characterized his candidacy had waned. Waging a four-month, hyper-focused campaign allows Gravel to pressure his opponents, introduce his proposals, and gracefully exit the race before overstaying his welcome.
Gravel and his coterie of teenagers may seem innocuous, but their campaign is anything but. Running on the slogan of “no more wars,” the Gravel campaign is ready to take the 2020 battle to the trenches. After running a distinctly anti-establishment campaign in 2008, Gravel has now disavowed even electability. With no restraints, Gravel has positioned himself to make a big splash this summer.
“Invest in popcorn,” advised pundit David Webb in reference to Gravel’s candidacy, “and get ready for what is about to come in the 2020 Democratic field.” The gravelanche is just beginning.
Photo: “Mike Gravel“