In 2020 Elections: Will Real-Life “Fighting Dems” Prove Irresistible?

Jon Stewart’s new Hollywood film, Irresistible, is getting mixed reviews as a broad satire of big money in politics and the political consulting racket. But it’s well worth watching just because of the timeliness and relevance of its other subject matter—the Democratic Party’s frantic recruitment of veterans to run for public office.

In real-life, these so-called “service candidates” are popping up on the ballot everywhere, often backed by very big money from the corporate Democrat donor class. Four military veterans joined the 2020 Democratic presidential primary race.  Pete Buttigieg, who served in Afghanistan, emerged as the most successful cultivator of billionaire backers, who numbered nearly sixty by the time he withdrew and endorsed Joe Biden.

Former Black Hawk helicopter pilot Tammy Duckworth was not part of that crowded field. But, after returning from Iraq as a disabled combat veteran, she joined the first wave of Congressional candidates heavily marketed by the Democratic National Committee (DNC) as “Fighting Dems.” Now serving as U.S. Senator from Illinois, she is high on Biden’s list of possible vice-presidential candidates.

In current House races, as the New York Times reports, the DNC is trying to make the success of its service candidates two years ago (when ten were elected to Congress) “a cornerstone of the Party’s strategy to maintain the House in 2020,”  To counter this effort, the Republican Party has recruited a more diverse crop of conservative veterans to run for Congress; one of them–a Mexican-American former fighter pilot– just won a special election in southern California. Before primary voting this spring reduced their total number, about 250 other Republicans were playing the veteran card in races around the country.

Two, Three, Many Marines

Among Democrats, so many service candidates are vying for nominations this year that three ex-Marines all ended up on the same Congressional primary ballot in Virginia.  Voters there picked 37-year old Cameron Webb, a 37-year old African-American doctor and former Obama Administration official who never served in the military. In Kentucky, former Marine pilot Amy McGrath, a darling of the national Democratic Party establishment, did better against Charles Booker, a Black state legislator backed by leading progressives. McGrath’s personal biography, as a veteran of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, helped her raise more than $40 million to beat Booker and, in November, take on Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell,

The Amy McGrath of Irresistible is Colonel Jack Hastings, played by Chris Cooper. A Marine veteran and working farmer, Hastings lives in Deerlaken, Wisconsin, a rural community fallen on hard times due a military base closing. Two-thirds of its population has left and the city’s main street is full of boarded up store fronts. In the wake of Donald Trump’s 2016 victory, Deerlaken’s longtime Republican mayor tries to deny social services to non-citizens, to help save tax-payer dollars.

Colonel Jack, as he’s known locally, goes to a city council meeting and makes a moving speech against this anti-immigrant measure. He praises the foreign born as good neighbors and invokes lessons learned in church and “the Corps. (which taught him “that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link.”) A video of Jack’s speech goes viral and catches the attention of Gary Zimmer, a Washington, DC political consultant played by Steve Carrell.

Gary is nursing a major hangover from the Clinton campaign, in the form of his belated realization that the Democrats he works for, like Clinton, “are getting their asses kicked” because they don’t know how to talk to millions of voters, who live in places like Deerlaken. He meets with the DNC and convinces them that Colonel Jack is just the kind of candidate their party needs to regain lost ground in “the great swing state of Wisconsin.” With Party approval, he flies to Deerlaken to convince someone “who’s a Democrat, but just doesn’t know it yet” to run for mayor in a city that hasn’t voted blue since the 1970s.

Tempered by War

With Gary’s not always-helpful coaching, the laconic Marine veteran launches his longshot bid for office, from his own pasture, with some balky cows in the background. A small-town mayoral contest, in rural America, soon becomes a multi-million dollar battle between rival consultants for both major parties, their allied Super-PACs, and out-of-town campaign helpers. All the paraphernalia of modern-day electoral politics–at the state or federal level—is soon on display in little Deerlaken and deftly satirized by the film’s director. Focus groups, war rooms, scripted phone banking, data analytics, dirty tricks, and campaign “messaging” have never looked so silly.

Stewart has a particularly good feel for the packaging and marketing of service candidates, with their obligatory American flag pins and camo-filled campaign photos. “Tempered by war, shaped by his faith, Colonel Jack is a new kind of Democrat,” one ad assures voters. “If you think he won’t fight for you, you don’t know Jack,” a billboard proclaims. “America’s greatness and God’s grace—I’d go to battle for those two any day,” Jack’s consultant has him saying. And then, the real air war begins—in the form of an ear-splitting TV commercial showing Hastings firing heavy bursts from a machine gun, under the caption: “Not Your Daddy’s Democrat!” (Paid for by a Super-PAC called the “Powerful Progressives for Strength.”)

The Republicans, local and national, respond in kind, with dark negative advertising, which worries Gary because it makes his candidate “look like a PTSD nutcase.” As the mayoral race draws national media coverage, Fox News weighs in about the “Military Man From the Heartland.” Its commentators agree that Colonel Jack “has thrown in with the Squad” and is “now part of the loony left,” which, they assure viewers, won’t sit well with his fellow veterans.

An Electoral Circus

Campaigns cost money so Gary takes Jack to New York for a fund-raising party, hosted by the very patronizing owner of a lavish apartment. Gary lays it on thick about “Colonel Jack being the embodiment of America’s real greatness, service to nation, hard work, faith” and how the “Republicans don’t own those values.” When it’s time for the slightly dazed candidate to speak, he fingers his suspenders, surveys the upscale crowd, and simply observes how “crazy it is for me to fly here tonight to your town to convince you to give money to help convince my town I’m worth it.”

By the end of Irresistible, we learn that Deerlaken’s mayoral candidates have cleverly turned their putative rivalry into a revenue generator for their depressed city, much like the early primary states of New Hampshire and Iowa do every four years. But, in real life, the electoral circus depicted in the film can actually inhibit political engagement, whatever economic benefits it might provide for a struggling local economy.

In the first flush of enthusiasm for service candidacies, one of their original boosters, Paul Reickhoff, a founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, predicted that military men and women who ran for office would help “lay the groundwork for a populist political movement that challenges the status quo in America.” That hasn’t proved to be the case yet, despite honorable exceptions like Richard Ojeda and Lee Carter who have been reliably populist and pro-labor as past or present state legislators in West Virginia and Virginia respectively.

Like most other politicians, military veterans backed by Super-PACs and beholden to big donors tend to become part of the big-money-in-politics problem. Once in office, few have turned their guns on the wealthy donors or corporate interests who fill their campaign treasuries, fund their advertising budgets, or help hire the consultants who market them as “fighting Democrats.” As Jon Stewart’s Irresistible illustrates so well, you’re not likely to challenge that status quo if your donor base includes the kind of corporate Democrats who make Colonel Jack sing for his supper, amid canapes and cocktails, on the Upper West side of Manhattan.