Editor’s Note: David Gergen is a senior political analyst for CNN and the co-director of Harvard’s Center for Public Leadership. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
As citizens vote this Tuesday in primaries across four states, political commentators will be closely watching for clues about whether women will make this a historic year of empowerment. A record number of women are running: In the election cycle of 2016, about a thousand women called EMILY’s List for help in seeking office; at last public count, over 36,000 women have called in this cycle. A surge in women’s voting could make a huge difference this fall.
Yet this is not the only dramatic story unfolding in this year’s election. For the first time in more than a generation, there has also been a surge in political activism among American veterans — people who have come home from Iraq and Afghanistan and want to fix things at home. At most recent count, according to the organization With Honor (for which I am an adviser), some 200 post-9/11 veterans are running for Congress alone.
These next-generation veterans, too, could begin to transform our politics.
In the early 1970s, as a young Naval officer transferred to Washington, I saw how meaningful military service could be to our political culture. Over 70% of congressional members were veterans. They were called “The World War II Generation” — young men and women who came of age during the war and saw politics as a way to continue their service to country.
Many of them were strong Republicans. Many were strong Democrats. But all of them, first and foremost, were strong Americans. They had fought under the same flag overseas; now they served under the same flag at home.
That’s why Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter, as far apart as two men could be on the ideological spectrum, still respected each other for service to and love of country. That’s why Mike Mansfield, a towering leader in the Senate, asked to be buried at Arlington among the enlisted men who had fallen. Patriots — all of them, ready to fight over the issues but ultimately, for the country’s sake, to come together to get things done.
We miss these patriots terribly in today’s politics. Over recent years, as veterans of World War II and Korea have gradually left the stage, the number of veterans serving in Congress has shrunk dramatically. In today’s House of Representatives, only 19% have worn a uniform. In 1971, 73% of the members of the US House were veterans. The disappearance of men and women who put the country first is one of the major reasons our politics are so mean, polarized and dysfunctional.
Enter a new generation that is now knocking on the door, ready to continue their service, eager to pick up the falling flag.
In the 2014 election cycle, Seth Moulton, D-Massachusetts, scored an upset win in the House. Moulton was a Marine infantry officer with four tours in Iraq and three degrees from Harvard. He is already being seen as a possible national candidate.
In 2016, a veteran on the other side of the aisle, Mike Gallagher, R-Wisconsin, won a breakthrough election to the House. Gallagher and Moulton have become friends and have worked across the aisle to co-sponsor meaningful legislation and get things done for the country. Gallagher has also quickly emerged as an influential leader and there are those around him who think he can go all the way.
Most recently, in a widely watched special election, Conor Lamb, D-Pennsylvania, won a House seat in Pennsylvania. Moulton campaigned with him on the final weekend before the vote. These veterans were all helped by an organization called New Politics that focuses on recruiting and training candidates to run for office.
Once veterans start running, there is a group called With Honor that helps provide critical financial support to help them win their races. The group was founded by veterans including Rye Barcott, who is extraordinary in his own right. Barcott was a Marine who came home to earn graduate degrees from Harvard Kennedy School and Harvard Business School. Last year, he and his partner put future investments on hold with the successful investment business they had co-founded and leaped into politics.
With Honor’s advisers include an impressive group of American leaders with strong bipartisan credentials, such as former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen, and former Undersecretary of Defense Michèle Flournoy.
With Honor’s super PAC has raised some $10 million in commitments – and counting. So far, the organization has endorsed 23 veterans running for Congress: 13 Democrats and 10 Republicans. Each has to sign a unique, cross-partisan pledge to work across the aisle with other veterans.
The aim of With Honor is to elect a group of next-generation veterans who can become an active caucus in the House of Representatives — a swing vote, if you will — that can form a fulcrum and change the political culture of the House and ultimately of the country.
Some of these veteran candidates are in harder-to-win races; it isn’t easy to raise the millions needed to win the first time out, especially when you have spent a good deal of time in recent years serving overseas. But some of them will break through, because, as surveys show, voters lean heavily in favor of men and women who have worn a military uniform.
There is a silver lining to the situation our country faces. Talented American veterans are answering the call to serve again and help turn around what may be the most dysfunctional and least trusted US institution: our Congress.
The veterans who With Honor endorses are rightly seen as more trustworthy and reliable. They are in politics for a noble purpose. It is also a noble goal to support them so that we see the emergence of a new generation of elected American leaders who will put principles before politics.