Mike Gravel 2020 / The Atlantic

It’s hard to pick the strangest thing about Mike Gravel’s campaign for president.

Is it the candidate’s 88 years of age? His blunt critique of American foreign policy? Or the fact that he refuses to travel anywhere to sell his candidacy?

Perhaps it’s that the former senator from Alaska’s campaign manager is a 17-year-old finishing his senior year of high school. Or that the stated goal of the Gravel fundraising apparatus is to raise as little money as possible.

No. The single strangest thing about the campaign is that neither the candidate nor the staff supports his bid for president.

“We don’t want people to vote for the senator,” David Oks, the wet-behind-the-ears campaign manager, told me. “The senator does not want people to vote for him.”

In fact, Gravel and his staff don’t even agree on which candidate they should back instead. Oks supports Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, while Gravel told me he’s interested in Sanders or Representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii. Yet here they are, tied together on a quixotic, somewhat cranky campaign for president, which officially launched on Monday. The real goal of the effort is to get Gravel onstage for the Democratic Party debates, where he would be a disruptive presence—talking about issues, and talking about them in a way that other Democrats are unlikely to do.

Indeed, Gravel laughed at the idea of becoming president: “At 89?!” Once he’d finished giggling, he added, “I would promise I would be only four years, ’til I’m 93.” Pause. “Then maybe I’d be drunk with power!” Gravel laughed again.

Candidates who run without much hope of actually winning their party’s nomination are not new. People run for president to spotlight a single issue, or simply to spotlight themselves. But rarely, if ever, has an effort been so blunt, with the candidate himself acknowledging that he’s just angling for the debate stage. With the Democratic Party’s guidelines for the debates offering candidates a simple—which is not to say easy—path to qualifying, the opportunity to tailor a campaign to fit the criteria is open. That means that an unorthodox outsider such as Andrew Yang has already qualified by collecting 65,000 donors, whereas Julián Castro, a former Cabinet secretary and heralded Democratic insider, is still scrapping to get onstage. Gravel and his young champions are perfectly happy to use the rules to their advantage.

“Do you know how old I am?” That was Gravel’s reaction when his would-be campaign staff first contacted him.

Forget knowing his age—just knowing Gravel’s name is impressive these days. He’s probably most famous for his 2008 Democratic presidential run, and especially for an enigmatic, esoteric campaign video that went viral; Gravel’s big issues in that bid were ending the Iraq War and increasing direct democracy. For Americans of a certain age—say, old enough to be David Oks’s grandparents—he might be remembered as a fierce critic of the Vietnam War who served two terms as a U.S. senator and read the Pentagon Papers into the Congressional Record.

The people who recruited Gravel as (likely) the oldest presidential candidate in history are absurdly young. Oks, despite his age, is not a newcomer to politics. At 16, he ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Ardsley, New York, a village in Westchester County. With the 2020 cycle on its way, he and his friend Henry Williams, a freshman at Columbia University, got to thinking about how they could get involved in the presidential election. They liked Sanders, Oks told me, but hesitated to join his campaign.

“Bernie, we thought, basically continues with Obama’s foreign policy, and we felt that Obama’s foreign policy was a disaster,” he said. Gabbard, with her mixture of Sanders-style domestic ideas and a strongly noninterventionist foreign policy, seemed closer to the mark—but they worried that her friendliness toward the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad tainted her.

“We thought the way to push the field left would be to have our own candidate in the race,” Oks said. “We really need someone to go in there and criticize the other candidates for policy positions that are really bad.”

They landed on Gravel, and set about persuading him to run, starting with a phone call on March 14. Gravel was understandably skeptical. Not only is he nearing his 90s, but he was living a pleasant life with his family, and working on a book about his idea to amend the Constitution to create a “Legislature of the People” that would bypass an atrophied Congress. But Oks and Williams convinced him. First, he was impressed that they were familiar with his reform idea. Second, they assured him that he wouldn’t have to travel—except to the debates if he qualifies—and that he wouldn’t have to give many interviews. It would be a reprise of William McKinley’s successful front-porch campaign in 1896, in which the Republican stayed at home in Canton, Ohio, rather than barnstorm. Gravel agreed to sign on, and he even starred in an updated version of his viral video.

There are, naturally, some significant differences between the McKinley campaign and Gravel’s. Whereas McKinley is famous for embracing American imperialism, the Gravel campaign rails against it. And whereas McKinley could sit back while his moneyman, Mark Hanna, collected funds from corporate interests, Gravel’s campaign is trying to raise as little as it can while still reaching the 65,000-donor mark. (The Gravel campaign said Monday that it had passed 8,000 donors.)

“We don’t really need the money,” Oks told me. “We’re not employing any consultants. We don’t want people to give their last dollar to us.”

Nor did McKinley have Twitter, but the social-media platform has been the nascent Gravel campaign’s most potent tool so far, with a spicy account and a clever hashtag: #gravelanche (sample zings: “The Beto campaign will pierce new frontiers in meaninglessness”; “We don’t need another nominee in bed with industry, like @Hickenlooper (who drank fracking fluid to prove fracking harmless) or @CoryBooker (who voted endlessly with Big Pharma)”). The account attracted media attention that Gravel might not have garnered otherwise, giving the campaign an early boost. It’s not actually the senator tweeting—Oks and Williams are writing the missives; they see it as a way of conveying the candidate’s views in a new medium.

“We’re updating Gravel’s style for the age of memes,” Oks said. “If you watch Gravel in the 2008 debates, he’s caustic, he’s willing to say things that no other candidate is willing to say. He’s an unfiltered guy. We are largely in tune where the senator would be were he a few years younger.”

Still, Gravel urged them to move away from personal attacks on other candidates and toward policy-focused critiques. It’s advice that they’ve taken … mostly:

When I spoke with Gravel last week, he was indeed the same passionate presence that he has been throughout his career, quick with compliments (for Gabbard and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, in particular), castigation (for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, in particular), and commentary on the Democratic field. (Despite his political differences with the former New York mayor, Gravel thinks Michael Bloomberg should change his mind and run, pegging him as the best chance to beat Trump.)

But Gravel was most expansive about his idea to amend the Constitution. The idea is complicated and probably best understood in Gravel’s own words. The basic concept is simple, though: Gravel believes that Congress has been so corrupted by moneyed interests that it’s failing to enact the people’s will, and he thinks the best way to work around that is to allow Americans to make their own laws through popular referendum, creating what he calls a “Legislature of the People.” As an example of Congress’s obsolescence, Gravel holds up the U.S. nuclear-weapons program.

“When people say, ‘We should have Medicare for All, education free for all,’ other people say, ‘Where’s the money?’ The money’s right there with the mother of boondoggles,” Gravel said. Because a nuclear war could wipe out all of humanity, he reasons that money is being spent on weapons that are effectively unusable.

“Since the leadership can’t deal with this problem and it hasn’t been able to since the Second World War, [we] have to ask the people: Do you want to keep this doomsday machine sucking up all your taxes? But right now the people can’t do anything about it,” he said. Gravel doesn’t think he could change the situation even if he did win the election, thanks to what he describes as an entrenched military-industrial complex. But competing in 2020 could help him spread the word about his direct-democracy solution.

“Getting into the debates would give me a chance to talk about the nuclear craziness,” he said. “Our leadership is certifiably insane, and we’re all trapped in this situation.”

Put slightly differently, Oks believes Gravel’s presence could shift the Overton window in the Democratic Party, making views that once seemed far-left seem more normal.

Whether that would work, should Gravel qualify, is unclear. His campaign will help test the rules the Democratic Party has laid out for this year’s debates. The party has to strike a balance: On the one hand, the purpose of primary debates is to winnow the field and help voters choose, and that’s hampered by having too many candidates onstage. On the other, if the party appears to be shutting candidates out, it risks the same kind of recriminations it did in 2016, when many Sanders supporters felt the debates were designed to help Clinton.

In theory, the 65,000-donor threshold will guarantee that a candidate with strong grassroots support can make it in.

“It’s a great threshold,” Donna Brazile, who served as interim chair of the Democratic National Committee in 2016 and wrote a book critical of the primary process last cycle, told me via email. “For starters, you can go online and work with state and local parties. Secondly, you can do a town hall on social media and generate interest. Bottom line, the criteria is a good test for the candidates.”

Because the rule gives campaigns a way to sidestep the tough work of breaking through in public polls in an overcrowded field—the other way candidates can qualify this year—it’s ripe for the kind of gaming the Gravel gang is up to. “Most political scientists will tell you that most rules can be gamed,” says Julia Azari, a political-science professor at Marquette University who has studied debates and presidential elections. “Presidential elections are an area where we see that constantly happening in real time.”

Yet even if Gravel qualifies to debate, he will have a hard time getting his message across. Azari notes that research with her fellow political scientist Seth Masket found that medium-size debates—four to five candidates—tend to generate the most substance. If a debate is too small, candidates tend to converge; if it’s too large, they simply get lost.

“If I could get on the debate stage, regardless of what question they ask me, I’m going to raise what I want,” Gravel told me.

Easier said than done. During the crowded 2016 GOP primary debates, Mike Huckabee complained about getting little chance to air his views, and he joked that he hoped to get attacked so it would give him a chance to respond and get a word in edgewise. Steve Jarding, a veteran political consultant who teaches at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, predicted that Gravel would end up in the same predicament: with limited time to make his case.

“If that senator fell in a forest, no one would hear it,” he told me. “God love anybody, 17 years old or 70, who says ‘I want to punch up the process a little bit and change the dynamic’ … but there’s 20 candidates in the Democratic field already. ”

Oks has faith that even a small role in the debates will shift the way that more mainstream, high-profile candidates approach foreign policy, though.

“If he gets into the debates, he’s going to serve as cover for Bernie and for Tulsi. He’s basically going to say things that they are unwilling to say,” he said. “He’s going to make Bernie Sanders look young and centrist.”

That would be a pretty remarkable trick. But it probably still wouldn’t be the most remarkable thing about the Gravel campaign.

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