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Mike Gravel, 2020’s oddest Democratic presidential candidate, explained

Mike Gravel, the anti-war zealot, is running for president on Twitter.

Presidential candidate Mike Gravel.
Mike Gravel ran for president in 2008 and then seemed done with political life. But now he is running 2020’s oddest presidential campaign.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Dylan Scott covers health care for Vox. He has reported on health policy for more than 10 years, writing for Governing magazine, Talking Points Memo and STAT before joining Vox in 2017.

Mike Gravel dropped out of the 2020 presidential race on August 6. Here’s the rest of the Democratic field.

Former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel is running for president. Seriously.

Gravel isn’t holding campaign events. He hasn’t stepped foot in Iowa or New Hampshire. In fact, until a couple of teenagers called him in March and urged him to run for president again, he was just an 80-something former Democratic senator and 2008 presidential candidate quietly fading from the public’s memory. Now Gravel is the subject, if not exactly the author, of the 2020 presidential election’s oddest campaign.

The former senator is a legend of the anti-war movement, having fought to end the Vietnam War draft and having taken the perilous step of entering the leaked Pentagon Papers into the official congressional record. He made a big splash in 2008, his last serious foray into politics, by hammering the other Democratic candidates for being too closely allied with the military-industrial complex. This was and is a serious guy.

But that doesn’t change the fact that it was two teenagers who convinced Gravel to enter the 2020 race and that the same teens are effectively managing his campaign by running his Twitter account.

Gravel is still a credible voice for the anti-war left and, during a primary largely defined by how little interest the competing candidates have shown in criticizing one another, his unusual campaign has been happy to take shots at other Democrats. It can only help to have online-savvy youngsters turning his anti-establishment message into Twitter-friendly Marie Kondo memes.

You would be forgiven for not knowing what to make of Gravel 2020. We’ve never seen a protest candidate quite like this. His bid lost some luster when Gravel failed to qualify for the first Democratic presidential debate (what is a protest candidate without a platform from which to protest?), but his candidacy should be a reminder of two things: The energy on the anti-war left is real and the rules of presidential campaigning have been rewritten after Trump.

Mike Gravel and some teens are kind of running for president

It sounds like a tall tale — two random New York teenagers listen to the ribald socialist podcast Chapo Trap House, learn about Gravel, and then literally call him up and ask him to run for president — but that is more or less what happened.

Gravel’s 2020 campaign started seemingly at random in mid-March, as his Twitter account announced he would run for president “not ... to win, but to bring a critique of American imperialism to the Democratic debate stage.” Splinter got the whole backstory from David Oks, the high school senior who along with his co-conspirator Henry Williams thought up this unlikely endeavor:

Oks, a high school senior who has previously run for mayor of his small New York town, told Splinter that he and several friends are avid listeners of the Chapo Trap House podcast, which mentioned Gravel in a recent episode. About a week ago, he and a couple friends reached out to Gravel and asked if he would consider making another run for president. Their pitch was clear. “My friends and I were encouraging him to consider running for president with the idea being that he would not try to contest any primaries, he would just try to get into the Democratic debates,” he said.

Oks and his friends were clearly inspired by Gravel’s performance in the 2008 debates, where he delivered a searing indictment of the vast majority of his fellow candidates for their support of the Iraq war and their continued commitment to American interventionism in the Middle East.

Thus far, Gravel’s campaign has largely been limited to saucy tweets. Oks and his friends, who act as the senator’s voice on social media, have been aggressive about criticizing the center-left candidates running for the Democratic nomination. Frontrunner Joe Biden is the frequent target of the Gravel account’s vitriol.

The senator himself has appeared on a popular podcast from the lefty Intercept news organization and espoused the same message in an interview with the Washington Post’s David Weigel. He is not here to make friends. Here is a sampling of what Gravel told Weigel about some of his 2020 competitors, starting with New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio:

“I don’t think he’s a very good mayor,” said Gravel, a former senator from Alaska who, with much less fanfare, is running for president. He thought even less of other candidates. Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) was an “empty shirt.” Climate-focused Washington Gov. Jay Inslee was running on “the safest issue any Democrat can run on.” Beto O’Rourke “jumped on tables like he had Saint Vitus’ dance.” Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.), who represented a district not far from Gravel’s adopted home, was a total mystery: “If he’d gotten anything done in Congress, wouldn’t I have heard about it?”

You could boil down the entire Gravel candidacy, especially given its extremely online nature, to one tweet:

Mike Gravel is struggling to be recognized as a legitimate 2020 campaign

Despite those pointed barbs and bemused media coverage of the unusual origins of his campaign, Gravel has struggled to gain mainstream acceptance that he is, in fact, a real candidate for president.

Prominent polling outfits often leave him out of their 2020 surveys — and considering those polls help candidates qualify for the primary debates under the rules set up by the Democratic National Committee, that became a serious problem. Gravel’s campaign was left urging his fans to lobby polling firms to include him.

Gravel’s campaign all but accused the DNC of blacklisting the senator. In this Medium post, aide Kate Tyler said the campaign called Democratic headquarters more than 200 times to get information about the party’s debate qualifications:

In those 200 attempts, we spoke to a real person three times. The first person told us they’d call back, the second transferred us to a voicemail that was never returned, and the third tried to send us back to the front desk. We’ve left messages and sent e-mails and scoured our contact lists for someone who might give us the time of day. After hundreds of man-hours with no results, we’re left with only one conclusion: we’re being stonewalled.

To this day, we have yet to get in contact with someone with authority over debate qualifications. That means we have no more information than what is publicly available. That is completely unacceptable.

When the DNC finally announced the 20 candidates who would participate in 2020’s first presidential debate, Gravel didn’t make the cut. He hasn’t gained much traction in the polls, even ones he was included in. The ad hoc campaign apparatus got Gravel on the national media’s radar, but it wasn’t quite enough to put him over the top and get him on the debate stage.

You might think that’s a shame. Gravel certainly has something to say.

Mike Gravel, the anti-imperialist leftist candidate

The Democratic presidential campaign so far has been preoccupied with the idea of electability. The whole premise of Joe Biden’s campaign is that he can beat Donald Trump. Kamala Harris, Pete Buttigieg, Beto O’Rourke, and other candidates have predicated their White House bids on a generational contrast with Trump. Elizabeth Warren is hoping that the candidate with a detailed plan for what they’d do as president can break through with the primary voters.

But Gravel is distinct. When he entered the race, winning wasn’t even on the agenda. He (and his industrious young assistants) wanted to leave a mark on the debate. And while the infrastructure of his campaign might sound like the set-up for a late-night monologue joke, the point Gravel wants to make is deadly serious.

Gravel is the anti-war, anti-“American foreign policy for the last 50 years” candidate. Some of his priorities are the same as every other Democrat: He wants to rejoin the Paris climate agreement and the Iran nuclear deal. But he also wants to end unilateral sanctions against other sovereign nations. He wants to close every American base in a foreign territory and cut US military spending by 50 percent.

He wants to end American aid to Israel and Saudi Arabia. Mike Gravel, it is safe to say, says things you won’t see almost any other candidate say.

It’s not as though Gravel is above making mistakes, but the man knows his message. After he made some ill-advised comments about Buttigieg’s sexual orientation, Gravel backtracked and then he turned his apology into a critique of American imperialism. You can decide for yourself how effective the pivot was — offensive comments about another candidate’s sex life are proof enough that being woke on war isn’t a cure against other blind spots — but it is illustrative of how singularly focused Gravel’s campaign is.

Gravel has bona fides, dating back to his 12 years in the Senate from 1969 to 1981. He filibustered to try to end the draft during the Vietnam War. He read the Pentagon Papers into the congressional record. He opposed nuclear testing. After leaving office, he was an opponent of the Iraq war and criticized Barack Obama for his drone strike campaign.

Look, he is a character. Gravel oddly campaigned for the vice presidential nomination in 1972. He ran for president in 2008 after nearly 30 years out of office, getting a viral moment for his troubles, and then pursued the Libertarian Party’s nomination when he quickly fell out of the Democratic running. He has talked about putting every piece of legislation up for a nationwide ballot referendum. Then a couple of teenagers convinced him to quote-unquote run for president again.

But, as an uncompromising anti-war candidate, he’s still an interesting voice in the debate. Bernie Sanders didn’t formulate much of a foreign policy message in 2016 and, while he has worked to flesh out his platform, the left still really hasn’t pulled together a cohesive foreign policy message, as Vox’s Alex Ward recently outlined:

The Democratic Party is a big tent, and the party’s left flank is increasingly out of step with more centrist Democrats who have espoused traditional US foreign policy positions for decades. And progressives have historically stumbled when trying to present a viable foreign policy alternative to the more military- and security-focused conservatives on the right.

Other lefty candidates, such as Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), have some problematic associations (she has been criticized for meeting with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad) that prevent them from being taken very seriously. Gravel has gravitas, if nothing else, on the issues he cares most about.

Mike Gravel almost certainly isn’t going to be the next president. But he could give a voice to the anti-war left in a primary hurting for bigger and bolder ideas about how to reorient American foreign policy. That is, if he can ever get anybody to take him and his motley crew of unlikely campaign staff seriously.

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