The funeral orations for John McCain were widely received as a reminder of what politics should be, in some remembered and perhaps mainly imagined nobler age. The remembered part might include Senator Everett Dirksen of Illinois, the leader of the Republican minority in the Senate, marshaling GOP votes for Lyndon B. Johnson to pass civil-rights legislation in 1964. The imagined part would be the straight-faced laments from the likes of Senator Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan about the end of comity in our public affairs.
McCain himself was an imperfect example of the spirit of reasonable compromise, as he fully realized: working with members of both parties on campaign-finance and immigration reform, but also voting down the line with Donald Trump on most issues except his famous Obamacare dissent, and of course bringing Sarah Palin onto the national stage. But at his own funeral, at this moment in national life, it was fair to the man and beneficial for the country to reflect on the best sides of what he stood for.
The part of his record that required no embellishment or imagination was his service in uniform—and his stoicism out of uniform, in POW wear. As the son and grandson of Navy admirals both named John S. McCain, John S. McCain III found the military a natural path. But even without that background, he was part of a pre–Baby Boom generation that grew up in a time when large draft calls, and a small Depression-era birth cohort, meant that most able-bodied men expected to serve in the military. (Elvis Presley, who was born a year before McCain and was drafted as an Army private just as his career was taking off, was one illustration. The novelist Philip Roth, who was born three years before McCain and enlisted in the Army before getting a medical discharge, was another.)
All that has changed. The end of the draft, the privatization and outsourcing of many former military functions, the shift from a large Cold War–era standing Army to today’s smaller, special-ops-intensive force—all of these and other trends have made military service an atypical rather than a usual experience. As I argued three years ago in The Atlantic, one effect has been to create “Chickenhawk Nation”: a country that is always at war, but very few of whose citizens fight. “The 1 percent” is mainly a reference to the economic elite. But it could also apply to the total proportion of Americans who have served in Iraq, Afghanistan, or other foreign theaters during the post–9/11 ongoing wars. “Thank you for your service,” the other 99 percent of Americans say before football games and at airports. Then they—we—think about something else.
This is a setup for news about one of the trends in this year’s politics whose consequences could improve American governance in the long run. The trend is the significant proportion of “young veterans”—those mainly under the age of 45, who have served during the long-wars era—who have now decided to run for office. According to Rye Barcott, a Marine Corps veteran in his late 30s who is the head of an organization called With Honor, some 400 recent-era veterans (including some incumbents) entered races for the House of Representatives this year, which Barcott says may be twice as many as in recent cycles. After the primaries, some 200 of them are still in the running (for the total of 435 House seats). With Honor’s goal is to increase the number of them who win, in this cycle and beyond.
I have written about Rye Barcott before in this space—seven years ago, when he had founded a charity called Carolina for Kibera to benefit children and families in the slum area of Nairobi called Kibera. (Barcott had gone to Kenya while an undergraduate, on an ROTC scholarship, at the University of North Carolina; then after graduation in 2001 had become a Marine Corps intelligence officer, serving in Bosnia, the Horn of Africa, and Iraq; and after leaving the Marines had gone into business but also written a book and set up his charity.) My colleague Ron Brownstein wrote for The Atlantic earlier this year about With Honor and its effort to improve American politics by involving and supporting more young-veteran candidates.
The news since then: With Honor is announcing Wednesday that it has raised $20 million toward its goal of $30 million to spend, as a PAC, on this cycle’s elections. The biggest increment was a $10 million gift from Jeff and MacKenzie Bezos—a rare active-politics involvement by the head of Amazon and the owner of The Washington Post—plus other significant contributions from business figures such as Alice Walton, Jim Walton, Carrie Walton Penner, Les and Abigail Wexner, Howard and Sheri Schultz, and “many other small dollar donors nationwide from both parties,” according to the organization’s press release.
The 33 remaining House candidates on whom With Honor is concentrating its support are listed here. Six of them are incumbents, including Seth Moulton of Massachusetts, a Marine Corps veteran and Democrat, and Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin, a Marine veteran and Republican. (Also Conor Lamb, a Marine veteran and Democratic quasi-incumbent, who won a special election in Pennsylvania this spring and is running now in a different district because of Pennsylvania’s court-ordered anti-gerrymandering redistricting.) Overall, eight of the candidates are women, and 25 men. Nineteen are Democrats, and 14 are Republicans. Two of the Democrats are getting increasing national attention: the Army veteran and firebrand state senator Richard Ojeda in West Virginia, and the Marine Corps pilot and firebrand Amy McGrath in Kentucky.
In addition to being pro–young veteran, With Honor’s emphasis is relentlessly bipartisan. Like many PACs, it strongly urges candidates it supports to sign a “pledge”—but in this case the pledge is not to follow a specified litmus-test set of votes, but instead to meet every 30 days with members of the other party, and to find ways to support bipartisan legislation.
I told Barcott that in the real circumstances of this year’s election, I personally put bipartisan endorsements into the “Isn’t it pretty to think so?” category. That is: When you have a governing party (the GOP) operating as if this were a parliamentary system, in which its main function is to cast bloc votes in favor of its party’s leader (Trump), then it makes sense for citizens to respond in a parliamentary way, and also vote on straight party-line grounds. If not even one Republican senator or representative will act to hold Donald Trump accountable, then by my lights the only remaining step toward accountability is to vote Republicans out as a group—whatever their individual merits, since they have shown that they will function in Congress less as individuals than as members of that group. And it’s not just me: my more conservative colleagues Ben Wittes and Jonathan Rauch have come to the same conclusion, as has the columnist Max Boot.
That’s for 2018. In the long run, the well-being of each party, and of representative government in general, depends on worthy candidates who are willing to endure the exhaustion, the tedium, the humiliation, but also the connection and exhilaration, of running for office. Barcott reminded me that With Honor’s candidates, Republicans and Democrats alike, had pledged to emphasize civility, consensus, and compromise — and that by background and military experience most of them were not reflexive partisans. “They tend to view themselves through a series of other identifiers, before they get to political party,” Barcott said. “American. Family member. Community member. Veteran.” Political aspirants of every era have of course wanted to describe themselves in similar above-mere-politics terms, but Barcott says that young veterans have put their time, and in some cases their lives, behind this form of service to the entire nation.
Both the Republican Party (if it survives Trump) and the Democrats (if the rest of us do) will be better off with a broader draw of future leaders who understand service-above-self as more than an abstraction. Service comes in many forms, from teaching school or caring for the sick, to developing communities or preserving the environment. But spending years in the nation’s uniform is a classic mark of willingness to serve. In that spirit, good wishes to With Honor, and to its new supporters and candidates.
And get out and vote.