MANCHESTER, N.H. -- The road to Saint Anselm College is marked with long Burma Shave-style strands of political placards. The name I see most is Biden. But all the Democratic candidates for president will be there for a debate.
As I approach the campus I see another kind of sign. It's for an idea, not a candidate. The signs say "FairTax."
That's why I'm here. One of the candidates favors the FairTax. It's the proposal that would abolish the IRS and replace the income, corporate, and employment taxes with a single, flat national sales tax.
This is not an idea you hear from Joseph Biden, Hillary Clinton, Christopher Dodd, John Edwards, Dennis Kucinich, Barack Obama, or Bill Richardson. They are the conventional candidates to lead the Democratic Party back into the White House.
The FairTax is a major part of the platform of Mike Gravel. He is the darkest horse in the race. He is the Ross Perot of 2008 -- except he is running as a Democrat, and CNN paid more attention to Ross Perot than it pays to the former senator from Alaska.
I watch the debate on a large flat-screen TV, sitting high on a gymnasium bleacher bench. Around me, nearly 20 bloggers tap away on glowing laptops. They have been gathered by CNN to post minute-by-minute commentary during the debate. Major Media wants no more Howard Dean surprises. It is already clear that what might be called "legacy media" will suffer some crowding out by YouTube and the broad assault of Web 2.0.
But that's another story.
The debate tells us that the war in Iraq will be ended quickly if the Democrats take the White House. Only the exact schedule varies. It tells us that the Bush tax cuts will expire. It tells us another major change in healthcare is coming, one that will combine the ubiquity of government management with the compassion of insurance. It tells us that energy companies will be punished for raising the price of gasoline and oppressing a nation of innocent SUV drivers. It tells us that 12 million illegal immigrants face years of uncertainty as Democrats declare that there is no opportunity in America while trying to control the unending flow of those crossing our borders to seek it.
Government spending beyond the war is virtually unmentioned. True government obligations go completely unmentioned. Social Security and Medicare are barely referenced. The dilemma of our young -- Generation Debt, as one writer calls it -- is mentioned only in relation to education loans.
The debate reminds me of an incident in the Carter era, when a Boston Globe editorial about a Jimmy Carter speech mistakenly carried a flip headline never meant for print.
"Mush from the wimp," the headline read.
The darkest horse in the race speaks no mush. Gravel offers a new deal. It is Internet new and Jeffersonian old. It is at once populist and libertarian. The new deal trusts us more and manipulates us less. Here are the main elements:
A national initiative much like state referendums to allow Americans to bypass Congress and vote on federal issues, sometimes called the "Let the people decide" movement.
The FairTax, which would eliminate the wretched tax system we now have and replace it with a single national sales tax. It would be supplemented with a rebate to reduce the burden of the tax on lower-income households. It would draw new revenue from wealthy people who spend their capital on consumption.
A Social Security fund invested in a low-cost global index fund, not IOUs, which would work as well for young people as for older people.
Universal health care vouchers that would guarantee healthcare to all Americans while putting the choice of how it is received back in the hands of the individuals who receive the care.
These are real ideas, worthy of real debate and offering real change. I'm ready for it. I'm sending Gravel some money. I hope you do, too. If we send enough, maybe Wolf Blitzer will give Mike Gravel the time of day.
And that, friends, means we would hear less mush.
Scott Burns is a syndicated columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com.