Military veterans in Congress know how to put country first
By DAVID IGNATIUS | Washington Post Writers Group | Published: August 1, 2018
Heading toward the midterm elections, President Donald Trump is playing the politics of division more recklessly than ever. But there’s a movement taking root in both parties this year that seeks to unite the country by building on the bedrock values of military service.
This coalescence of young veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan may be the most positive trend on the political horizon. These young men and women have been through the nightmare of combat in the most challenging environments; they know what it means to serve the country, beyond flag-waving and sloganeering.
“My military experience gave me humility,” said Rep. Mike Gallagher, a first-term Republican from Wisconsin who served in Iraq as a Marine intelligence officer. “At the point of the spear, neat solutions never survive contact with the enemy.”
Gallagher is a member of a bipartisan group of young veterans called With Honor that hopes to have 20 of its members in the next Congress. The group has raised $10 million for races thus far this year, and hopes to push that total to $30 million by year-end. Donations are split, 50/50, between Republicans and Democrats.
Bipartisan cooperation is not optional. Candidates who receive support must sign the following pledge, and it speaks so directly to what ails our country these days that I’ll quote it in detail. Maybe voters could ask all candidates to make the same promise:
“1. Integrity: I will always speak the truth and prioritize the public interest above my self-interest. ... 2. Civility. I will respect my colleagues, focus on solving problems and work to bring civility to politics. ... 3. Courage. I will defend the rights of all Americans and have the courage to collaborate across the aisle and find common ground.”
The bipartisan group has backed some of the veterans who’ve had big victories in primaries this year, often running against party establishment candidates. Amy McGrath, a former Marine fighter pilot, bested a well-funded local mayor for the Democratic nomination for a Kentucky House seat; Michael Waltz, a much-decorated former Army Green Beret who served in Afghanistan, is running for the Republican nomination for a Florida House seat despite having taken a “Never Trump” position in 2016.
With recent polls and analysis forecasting a likely Democratic takeover of the House, Democratic veterans may play a pivotal role in the next Congress. One of their leaders, Rep. Seth Moulton, of Massachusetts, who served as a Marine officer in Iraq, argues that the Democrats should resist the temptation to settle scores if they win back the House.
The Democrats should instead become a true governing party, said Moulton, under a “big tent” that can embrace progressive candidates such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a former community organizer who won a Democratic House nomination in a liberal New York City district, and Mikie Sherrill, a former Navy helicopter pilot who won a Democratic House nomination in a more centrist New Jersey district.
To Moulton, the choice is simple: “If we want to become a narrow party — far left or moderate — we can, but we’re not going to win.” To encourage Democratic veterans to run, Moulton has formed a political action committee called Serve America that has raised about $2.75 million and backed 36 veterans for Congress and state and local races.
Moulton cites two charismatic female veterans in Texas who bucked the establishment to win Democratic nominations this year: M.J. Hegar, a decorated former Air Force helicopter pilot who won the House nomination in a district near Austin, and Gina Ortiz Jones, a former Air Force intelligence officer who won the nomination along the West Texas border.
Veterans in Congress seem less afraid than some colleagues to challenge their parties’ leadership, and more willing to work across the aisle — qualities that are badly needed these days. Moulton bluntly criticizes House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, arguing that she’s “arrogant” and out of touch. Gallagher, too, expresses a willingness to buck GOP leadership when necessary.
What encourages me about these Iraq and Afghanistan veterans in Congress is that they understand what it means to put the nation’s interests first. Moulton shared with me a sermon he gave at Harvard last November. It’s worth reading carefully:
“I believe we can drive the divisive politics of the day out of our daily lives. But when we do, there will be many in the opposition — the ‘resistance’ as it’s now proudly called — who will want to sing out in triumph with great moral righteousness. ... This would be a terrible mistake. It would not heal our country but reopen our wounds.”
We’re overwhelmed by bad news these days, but I’ll be honest: Talking to these congressional vets gives me hope that better times are ahead.