After the crowded presidential primary shrunk from eight Democrats and 11 Republicans to only three viable candidates between the two parties, what's a spurned presidential hopeful to do? Well, if you're Ron Paul, you ignore John McCain's inevitability and keep running anyway. If you're former U.S. senator Mike Gravel, you switch parties.
Last Monday, the former Democrat swung by the Libertarian Party's national headquarters and defected. "We handed him a [membership] card on the spot," says Shane Cory, the party's executive director. Two days later, Gravel formally announced he would run to be the Libertarian candidate for president, joining a field of 15 others. Cory wouldn't comment on Gravel's chances at the convention, which will take start in Denver on May 22, but he did say that Gravel's party swap has garnered some much-appreciated exposure for the Libertarians.
Gravel spoke to NEWSWEEK's Sarah Elkins about the 2008 race and why he's still running. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: You've been a Democrat for your entire political career. Was it a tough decision to switch parties?
Mike Gravel: It had been eating at me--believe me--ever since I was a senator [he served from 1969 to 1981]. When I was in the Senate, I was a maverick and, at the end of my term, I was not particularly happy with my progress in terms of partisanship with the Democrats and Republicans. So when I left office, I stayed away from partisan politics altogether. But when I decided to get back in the game and to get my message out to the American people about the National Initiative [a political movement that would allow ballot initiatives at the federal level], I had to pick a party that would allow me to get into the debates … But of all the parties I was probably closest to the Libertarians.
It sounds like you've been interested in leaving the Democratic Party for some time. Why didn't you make the move sooner?
It wouldn't have made any sense for me to enter the race as a Libertarian. [As a Democratic candidate], I got into the debates and got a fair amount of visibility up until General Electric [which owns NBC] along with the Democratic Party leadership, said they would get me out of the debates. And they did. GE said I did not meet their criteria for participating in the debates. I think it's very interesting that a defense contractor said I had to meet their criteria in order to participate in the MSNBC debates. We've really come down in democracy when a defense contractor can decide what the American people hear from a candidate. It was a [Democratic National Committee] sanctioned debate, so we complained to the DNC and found out that Howard Dean had agreed to it and that not a single one of the other Democratic nominees raised a finger in protest, meaning that they were totally tone deaf to the censorship of the military-industrial complex.
So you didn't consider running as a Libertarian from the get-go?
I would have preferred to run as an independent or Libertarian or Green Party, but I knew that none of those candidates would have gotten any traction. So I used my position as a legitimate Democratic candidate to get my name out there.
You still have to win the Libertarian primary in order to run as the party's candidate.
I am probably the most well known and certainly the most experienced in terms of running for president and as a government official. I have 16 years of experience in elected office and have been a senator, and I have a great deal of foreign-policy experience.
What do you think of the ongoing battle between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton?
It's a bit of a mess. The Democrats have a great skill for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. And the Democratic Party is the war party whether we want to believe it or not. They voted for the war in Iraq. I think that the infighting is going to benefit the Libertarian party. I think it will bring clarity on a comparative basis: Obama talks about change but has nothing specific to offer, and Hillary is more of the same.
What do you think of Sen. John McCain, the GOP nominee?
McCain is not a stable person. I think there is something wrong with him. He's a warmonger, and he believes in pre-emptive war, which means he is willing to go to war with anyone in the world. The nation in terms of leadership is in very serious trouble.
What kind of a shot do you have in November?
I have a very decent shot and the reason is the Democrats, from a policy point of view, will not be all that different from the Republicans. Both parties are raising all their money from Wall Street, so the same people who own the Republican Party own the Democratic Party. So neither Barack Obama nor Hillary Clinton will be as bad as McCain in terms of being a warmonger, but they are still part of the military-industrial complex, and we will still be the self-appointed policemen of the world. I don't think Americans want that. When I have the [Libertarian Party] standing behind me, I don't think [the other candidates] can stand the withering fire I will heap upon them … Hillary and Obama won't even understand what I'm talking about. They don't understand that the American people are smarter than they are.
Did you have to tweak your message in order to fit into the Libertarian mold?
My message is not reformulated at all, because none of my messages really differ from those of the Libertarian Party. [Running the campaign] is going to be a lot easier for me because I am getting more attention [after switching to the Libertarian Party], and I am getting more respect. I will be included in the debate in Kansas City for Libertarian candidates, and I'm sure it will be more of a fair debate than I had with the Democrats.
Do you think your joining the Libertarians might breath new life into the party?
Yes. The Libertarians have been given short shrift over a period of time, and I think the American people are fed up with the other parties, which means they are looking elsewhere. So now they are looking for someone to come forward with an agenda to empower the American people--like ending the war on drugs, ending the structure of spending our treasure on defense when we don't even have a threat from any other country in the world. This is insanity.
But third-party candidates never fare well in general elections. Do you think America is really ready to elect a candidate who isn't a Democrat or a Republican?
Yes. I think this is just like when the Whigs turned into the Republican Party [in the late 19th century]. We were aiming at that point in history for a perfect storm, and we are aiming at that perfect storm again now.
Are you expecting some Democrats to switch parties and vote for you?
I've had a number of people who said they would follow me. They are Democrats that are for peace and are antiwar. What is an antiwar Democrat going to do right now? They are stuck! They aren't going to stay. They are going to come to the same conclusion that I came to, which is that you can't change the party from within, you have to change it from without.
Ralph Nader recently entered the race as a third-party candidate too. Is he a threat?
Not at all. Ralph Nader is a great guy, but I just don't think anybody should become president who has not served in the government and doesn't know how it works. I would use Ralph Nader, though.
How would you use him? As a cabinet officer?
Yes. I think a great deal of him, and in terms of environmental issues, he would be excellent.
I understand you are about to head back out on the trail. What are your plans for moving forward?
I've got my new book, "Citizen Power," to promote, because that really outlines my platforms in great detail. [The book] is part of my candidacy. Obama hasn't been shy about promoting his books, which are nice stuff but don't say anything in terms of solutions. And my books are all in paperback--I don't believe in hardback--and I have two other books coming out: one is called "Voice of a Maverick" and is about my speeches throughout my career, and the other is called "The Kingmakers," and is about the mainline media and how they determine who becomes president.
Wow, sounds like you've been doing a lot of writing lately.
I have. In six months I've had four books out. When I'm not being covered by the media, I try to use my time effectively.
You mention that you don't believe in hardcover books. Is that because they are too expensive?
Yes. Too expensive, and they cut down too many trees.