Lou's List

Somewhat informed observations on politics and life from a wayward journalist.

Location: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, United States

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Gravel: Unknown legend

With the U.S. mired in Iraq and Democrats searching for a way out, surely the person arguably more responsible than any other in Congress for extricating our nation from the similar quagmire in Vietnam could make a considerable contribution to the intra-party debate as we move toward 2008.

You may not know it, but that very man is in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, but represents less than a blip in public opinion polls and has received virtually no mainstream media attention. Instead of speaking to an overflow crowd in a gym or community center in Iowa or New Hampshire earlier this evening, he was speaking to around 20 College Democrats and others at the University of Pittsburgh. And on Friday, instead of pressing the flesh at a big ticket Manhattan fundraiser, he'll be taking a bus from New York to his home near Washington because his campaign can't afford for him to fly.

Mike Gravel, 77, the former U.S. Senator from Alaska, is the man who brought the Pentagon Papers to light in 1971, hastening the long-awaited withdrawal from Vietnam, and who mounted a five-month filibuster that ended the military draft. But little would you know that Gravel spearheaded these great progressive victories of yore by the lack of credence his first campaign since losing his Senate seat in 1980 has been granted by Democrats and political observers.

This is probably because he has dedicated himself since leaving office to shaking the very foundation of our political system, strongly advocating for the institution of National Initiative, a system by which laws would be introduced and passed or rejected by nationwide popular vote rather than within the confines of the Capitol. Gravel insists that a legislative system of this type is what founding fathers such as Washington, Jefferson, and Madison intended, but that their vision was corrupted by other framers desperate to protect the institution of slavery.

Turning our backs on the way we have been governed for 230 years is a rather bold reform, but "I'm not a radical. They're the radicals," he says of office holders (Democrats included) who tolerate continuing the war, sending troops into battle without proper equipment, denying care to veterans, propping up a failed health care system, and heaping the nation's tax burden on the middle class, all in opposition to the wishes of the majority, he says. "I'm reasonable."

Still, he grants, "There's not another Democrat on the face of the Earth that would talk like this."

While a few mainstream Democrats have had the courage to call for an immediate withdrawal from Iraq, Gravel says he plans to "spring on Congress" in the coming weeks a proposal for a complete pullout that will require sworn verification by the President and Defense Secretary, with subsequent pledges by these officials every few months that troops haven't been sneaked back into Iraq. If the administration did authorize troops or were found to have falsely verified the withdrawal, the penalty would be five years in prison and a $1 million fine. Gravel said he would urge Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to bring the bill to the floor and hold a cloture vote every day until public pressure resulted in opposition to it melting away.

Far out of the Democratic mainstream, though, is Gravel's proposal to do away with the income tax completely, replacing it with a sales tax on all items with no exceptions. He disputes the liberal mantra that the sales tax is regressive, saying that it would instead force the wealthy to pay rather than employ tax shelters and loopholes and those with illicit income to contribute to the public good. Part of his plan is for every American to receive a monthly rebate for the cost of taxes paid on necessities, which would result in lower income people who consume little coming out ahead.

Gravel's health care plan is nearly as bold. He proposes a system in which each American would receive a health care voucher each year, the amount of which would be determined by their age and medical history. He also takes the very un-Democrat position of favoring caps on damages in medical malpractice lawsuits.

But "The Congress will never pass this," Gravel admits, which brings us back around to his overriding passion--the pursuit of National Initiative--and spawned Gravel's campaign slogan, "Let the People Decide."

Gravel says that Democrats are not being given much opportunity to decide for themselves about who their standard bearer will be next year because the perceived front-runners are reluctant to debate. "So far the debates have all been beauty contests," because of conditions set by the leading campaigns, he says. "It's an unfortunate process."

But he looks forward to having all the candidates on stage together at a debate in South Carolina April 26, and plans to challenge his better-known opponents, especially those who voted to authorize the war and are now offering excuses, caveats, and apologies for their votes.

"It was a political decision, and I'll say that to their faces."