In America, who’s more likely to win an election: a scam artist or a war hero?

This campaign commercial for Amy McGrath, who is running for Congress in Kentucky, has got the Twitterati excited.


The campaign of McGrath seems in line with a decision, leaked last June, by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to field candidates who had seen combat, along with “job creators” and “business owners.”

The question is: does it work?

In the last ten presidential elections, only one candidate who actually fought in a war has won: George HW Bush.

All the rest either served their country by shooting flicks (Reagan) or manipulating family connections or deferments to avoid combat (Clinton, George W. Bush, Trump) or simply weren’t eligible for a draft (Obama).

Meanwhile, enlistees, soldiers, and war heroes, Republican and Democrat alike, have repeatedly lost: Mondale, Dukakis, Dole, Gore, Kerry, and McCain.

In the most spectacular face-off’s between a genuine war hero and a draft-dodger-ish type—Clinton v. George H.W. Bush in 1992, George W. Bush v. John Kerry in 2004—it was the draft-dodger-ish type that won. (And if you think the same rules don’t apply at the congressional level, just google the names Max Cleland and Saxby Chambliss. Though as Matt Countryman pointed out, Tammy Duckworth is an excellent counterpoint to my claim.)

Despite our sense that Americans respond best to warriors and war heroes, it may be the confidence man who commands the most confidence. Something has shifted in this country. Whether it’s the passing of World War II as a touchstone of the political imagination or the end of the Cold War or the rise of neoliberalism, the elections of the last several decades have shown that while the consultant class and the image-makers continue to fantasize about an electorate cobbled together from a Spielberg film and a Sorkin script, the citizenry is far more taken by the conman and the scam artist than they are by the virtuous soldier.

Yet the dream dies hard, particularly among Democrats.

I get that this commercial is supposed to be different: a woman candidate, discriminated against, defending health care and the like. But, still, the main message is in the visuals and voiceover of that first minute of the video—all aircraft carriers and bombers, with the punch line being this: “I flew 89 combat missions bombing Al Qaeda and the Taliban.”

My gut sense is: it doesn’t work. It doesn’t even work for Republicans anymore. Just ask Bob Dole. Or John McCain.


  1. Scott Day August 3, 2017 at 6:33 pm | #

    From the CD I made Trump Jam [Historic] in commenting in real time I discovered that Trump is a Pedantic nitpicker. Could be Americans are so beaten down they respond to those that talk down to them. We could say Clinton Unit II tried that, sort of, though essentially she was calling them names when saying they were “deplorables” a different thing from talking down to them.

  2. Chris Morlock August 3, 2017 at 6:43 pm | #

    The problem with military service records and Amy McGrath in general is that it’s basically working off of identity politics and the idea that people who did things in the military can be good politicians. I just don’t buy that concept, and instead of talking about issues and policy they choose to tell stories about where they came from and how hard it was, etc.

    I think women should serve in combat if they can meet the requirements, but does a woman who served in the Military have a special status over a man that served? Or someone that didn’t serve at all? The Military is it’s own game, and I see little evidence that makes for good politics.

    So the concept that these candidates and ads basically present is “Elect me for my identity, elect me for my accomplishments in an unrelated field”. I want to know what Amy thinks about policy issues, not her “identity” and what she thinks that buys her.

    • Chris Trinna Kendl August 5, 2017 at 1:06 pm | #

      Military service entails working for the government, and of course service to the public. How is that unrelated to being in Congress which entails working for the government and public service. What makes a businessman or a Harvard lawyer more qualified to serve in Congress? Creating legislation is supposed to be more about ethos (doing things for the good of society, rather than good of the individual) than it is about data. Military service, especially Marine service, is steeped in ethos. I would contend it makes someone more qualified than the person that never served.

      • Chris Morlock August 6, 2017 at 4:10 am | #

        More qualified that a career politician? How about an academic with years of administrative experience? The list is endless, and I don’t doubt Military service has some kind of value in government. But so does many many other things. Businessmen also have value in some sense. I would contend though that they are all wholly unrelated to career politicians and statesmen, especially those that serve in the world of Federal politics (including foreign diplomacy, etc).

        So people saying I served in ________ (fill in the blank) is not much of a slogan for me when it comes to proving political prowess and acumen. Sure there are some inter-sectional qualities.

        Trump couldn’t politic his way out of a paper bag (businessman). Neither could Obama (academic) in my opinion. Except to dismantle regulation, of course.

        • Chris Trinna Kendl August 6, 2017 at 7:52 am | #

          The only qualification a carreer politician really has is the ability to get reelected. In the armed forces you have to show results, and more is expected of you as you go up in rank, which is why promotions stall at Captain, Major, Lt. Colonel, Colonel, and Major General. The proven ability to show results while serving the public is another demonstrated quality of military leaders. Showing results is rarely required of politicians, where name recognition, being the incumbent, and politcal party, not actual accomplishments, are the greatest factors in getting reelected.

  3. William Clare Roberts August 3, 2017 at 7:04 pm | #

    It’s the Daily Kos model of taking back the country for the Dems: get counter-typical liberals to run in red states, war heroes and straight-talking cowboys. The Kos success stories — Jim Tester and Tammy Duckworth — are not nothing, but I agree with you that it is a limited strategy. It is an updated “move to the center” — buy into the conservative stereotypes about coastal hippies and yuppies, and find Left-ish folks who don’t look like the stereotype. Which also reinforces the stereotype and distracts from running on an actual policy platform.

    • Andrew B. August 4, 2017 at 11:40 am | #

      Well said. Identity will take you only so far. Few people will vote for you based on who you are. What wins votes is expressing a VISION, however unspecific. I’m convinced Trump’s “MAGA” line and the vision it represented won 2016 for him. The educated Left tends to (and is trained to) read multiple layers in things, with accompanying irony, hypocrisy, and so forth. But most voters will pretty much take your word for something, if they hear it often enough. Progressive candidates need more than a bomber jacket or cowboy boots — they need a rallying theme.

  4. Ryan Daley August 3, 2017 at 7:38 pm | #


    Isn’t it the kind of soldiers we revere rathe that has changed? I agree that the virtuous soldier doesn’t do it much for people anymore, but I’m wondering about someone like Chris Kyle who seemed to really stir the public imagination (especially among a demographic that would probably find confidence men appealing…come to think of it, wasn’t Kyle both a vicious soldier and conman?)


  5. John K. Wilson August 3, 2017 at 7:48 pm | #

    Mark Kirk lost because he was a terrible candidate in a very blue state, and he made the mistake of denouncing Trump (and being attacked by Trump). Duckworth also is a disabled veteran, which gives her a different status and makes her harder to attack. So that’s really not a counterpoint to your argument. Kirk would have lost to anyone in 2016.

  6. KLG August 3, 2017 at 8:01 pm | #

    I lived in KY-6 for 8 years. She will be as successful as Alison Lundergan Grimes was against The Turtle. Besides, her military hero trope will begin to fall apart as soon as Andy Barr points out that she lost her war. Yes, Republicans have no shame, but that will also be part of the larger truth that the US military establishment is on a zero-for-72 years losing streak. People, especially where the flag-draped coffins from Dover stop, are beginning to notice our futility.

  7. janesugar August 3, 2017 at 8:10 pm | #

    I am trying to imagine getting upset about anyone who declines to vote for someone whose childhood dream was to bomb brown people.

  8. jonnybutter August 3, 2017 at 8:43 pm | #

    Duckworth also is a disabled veteran, which gives her a different status and makes her harder to attack.

    Cleland wasn’t hard to attack. I’m pretty sure they attacked Duckworth too, and shamelessly. You are right that Kirk would have lost to just about anyone, although we also assumed that Trump would lose to just about anyone – even HRC! But local/state races don’t have an electoral college….

    I think the conman is the essential post WW2 type, not the war hero. It’s sort of a dirty little secret of the supposedly ‘greatest generation’ that it often considered being a dupe and a fool almost a patriotic duty. Consumerism was sort of built around the adulation of the con and the conman – the salesman (mostly only men in those days). Con-sumerism + television – which is much better at manipulating emotion than informing – made the Reagan type almost inevitable.

  9. Roquentin August 3, 2017 at 9:55 pm | #

    Conservatives couldn’t care less about soldiers in office, not real ones anyways. They want people who will repeat vicious nationalist cant in a convincing and believable manner. They like the military as an institution only in so far as it projects the image of a strong, quasi-invincible nation. There is a huge swath of American society which is absolutely dead set on never facing reality. If they respect the military, it’s the big budget movie version of it seen in something like American Sniper.

    I guess the point is that you were never dealing with reality to start with. The Democrats take their posturing too seriously, moreso than they do themselves.

    • James Levy August 4, 2017 at 7:50 am | #

      I think that if you are the wrong kind of person and “insult” (in their eyes) the military, it is still a big thing, but you are right about way people of all strips here in America can’t face reality. Trump is a clear example: he insulted McCain, the generals, and two gold star parents, but he also praised the military to the skies while complaining about it not winning. In short, he spoke out of both sides of his mouth and the people who wanted to hear the message they wanted to hear heard it and ignored the rest. Reality had nothing to do with perception.

      • Roquentin August 5, 2017 at 4:09 pm | #

        Well, you couldn’t embrace reactionary nationalism without being completely contradictory. It’s not a rational position, which is why you barely have to poke at it for the logic behind it to fall apart. You could go a step further and say that the annoyance at questioning or even taking the rationale behind too seriously it betrays the fact that even most of its adherents understand it doesn’t make sense. The annoyance sometimes takes the form of “Of course you know it’s a sham, we all do. Now do a favor and shut up about it.” I grew up around a lot of sincere Christians, so I have a lot of practice understanding completely irrational, deeply held beliefs.

        Umberto Echo called fascism a “beehive of contradictions” and I think this is accurate. I don’t know how reason and rationality ever were ceded to the political right, but it damn well shouldn’t be. Adorno wrote about this too, seeing Nazism in many ways a product of German irrationalism, a lot of the best parts of Minima Moralia deal with how fascism related to superstitious beliefs and occultism. There are characters from the proto-Nazi era such as the huckster and supernatural charlatan Erik Jan Hanussen who make this connection quite clear.

      • Roquentin August 5, 2017 at 4:18 pm | #

        To put it more directly, only a con artist could run and win given the sad state of the current political ideology in the United States. Such a contradictory and misleading ideology necessarily requires a fundamental level of dishonesty in those who promote it.

        One more thing about Adorno, he has this little known book called “The Psychological Technique of Martin Luther Thomas” which examines a quasi-fascist fundamentalist minister from 1930s California. More people should read it, because the analysis is absolutely dead on. I’m trying to find the right words for my point, but he talks at length about how getting people to accept the irrationality of little superstitions is basically a warm up for the lies of the political ideology in the bigger picture. I think about someone like Ben Carson, an MD no less, who shilled for some kind of holistic medicine via Mannatech in the past. You can follow that thread through so many things. But at this point I’m probably flogging a dead horse.

    • Chris Trinna Kendl August 6, 2017 at 9:28 am | #

      What I believe invalidates your thesis about Republican attitudes and the military is that nearly 80% of people currently serving in the armed forces identify themselves as either Republican or Conservative leaning. I would contend Republicans like the military because they are more likely to have served in the military or are from a family of somone who has served in the military. These are not the illusions of someone who watched a movie, but often from personal experience of having served, and the frustrations of having those who never served, or those that disparage military service, dictating military policy. This can be traced back to the Vietnam era where the extreme Left vehemently protested against the military, and military service became a stigma to many of the left side of the politcal spectrum. When Reagan came into office his platform of military service being honorable and patriotic appealed to Republican voters, while Liberal Democrats continued to talk about Vietnam. Republican kids joined up, while Liberal kids turned a jaundiced eye toward military service. Senior military leadership during the Reagan era was filled with Vietnam vets who felt they did their duty, and even if they were Democrats previously, felt that the Democrat Party had abandoned them in favor of Jane Fonda, draft dodgers, and the radical anti war movement. As time went on the greater influx of Republican leaning recruits created an incubator of Republican and Conservative thought in the leadership of the armed forces. Even if a kid was apolitical and simply joined for college money, he or she was going to be surrounded by officers and NCO’s who who espoused Conservative values. This is now going on its third generation and has created an armed forces that is overwhelming Republican and Conservative.

    • Roquentin August 6, 2017 at 3:37 pm | #

      No, it doesn’t invalidate it. You are looking at the numbers wrong. I Googled it just to make sure, but one of the first links that came up was this one from NPR. Those in the military make up less than 1% of the population in the US. They amount to very little in a general election.

      While your explanation might be valid for that small sliver of the population, it certainly doesn’t hold true for the population at large. And even if we pretend that it did, the thesis of the original argument is still wrong. If 80% of people serving in the military identify as Republican, they aren’t going to give a damn if you pick one of the 20% of Democrats who are serving, it’ll come off as a desperate and phony attempt to pander to them. They aren’t that stupid. It would be like if you picked some Republican from Bay Ridge to represent Brooklyn, when more than 80% of the borough votes Dem. The strategy is hopelessly naive.

      Setting that aside, not many people actually serve. For every person that has, there are far more who are only interested in a certain distorted version of it culturally.

      • Chris Trinna Kendl August 7, 2017 at 8:19 am | #

        You are confusing the number of people in the military with the amount of actual influence certain groups have in among party for voters. For example, among Democrats, the percentage of people identifying as transgender is very small, but they have a large amount influence on the Democrat platform and Democratic voters. Transgender issues have played prominent roles in recent elections, and I am sure they will again in the upcoming elections, and that is with less than one percent of voters identifying as transgender. The same goes for Republicans. While the armed forces are only one percent of the population, military and veterans issues have been core issues for Republican voters for at least the last four decades. Military veterans have also taken prominent roles in political leadership for Republicans as well. Both Bushes were veterans along with Powell, Rumsfeld, and now Mattis and Kelly just to name a few. Democrat Presidents appointed primarily non-veterans to Sec Def, Sec of State, and now Chief of Staff. Democrats in Congress like Sciff and Lee have spoken against former military in the government which only serves to codify further Republican support of the military, and further paints Democrats as anti-military. Candidates like McGrath have to overcome that stigma by showing there are Democrats who served that are pro military. Some Republican voters do give a damn. Democrats have lost Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Arkansas and West Virginia, which all went for Clinton, and in the last election Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin which went for Trump. Simply writing off every Republican, nearly half the country, as nationalist extremists, and not trying to find candidates and platforms that are more inclusive, is not only specious, but also recipe for more election losses by Democrats.

  10. Billikin August 3, 2017 at 11:57 pm | #

    Maybe it has to do with the American Empire peaking. When did the British Empire peak? WWI, even though the British won? Arguably, the American Empire peaked with the Viet Nam War. Who in the US gets excited about war anymore? Even with so-called War on Terror, Bush rallied the nation to what? go shopping (!). It seems like people care more about the Civil War than any other, these days.

  11. Sanjay August 4, 2017 at 6:00 am | #

    I’m not actually sure what Dr. Robin is saying is true, at the local or even Congressional level; I think Martha McSally, for one, has put down a pretty clear playbook here.

  12. JuneZ August 4, 2017 at 9:40 am | #

    Add George McGovern, a war hero, antiwar and authentic progressive, too.

  13. Gavolt August 4, 2017 at 12:20 pm | #

    Hard to imagine the mind of someone who is actually proud of bombing Afghanis. Probably the same mind that chants “USA USA USA” to drown out the booing of Leon Panetta.

  14. jazzbo August 4, 2017 at 4:20 pm | #

    As a life-long resident of the sixth district I can tell you there were far more more votes here against HRC than for Trump.
    The district contains Lexington which is very much blue. Barr is neither informed nor charismatic, Barr is vulnerable.

  15. Bruce Wilder August 4, 2017 at 5:42 pm | #

    I am not sure it ever worked for a certain kind of Republican voter.

    Hypocrisy and mediocrity vote too, you know. Any of us might admire the Apollonian figure shining from the hill, or we might feel that heroic light throw us into shadow. We might want the best among us to lead, but we might resent virtue or achievement, too, especially when it claims superiority we cannot share.

    I think Nixon founded the modern Republican Party electorate on the resentment felt by mediocrity and hypocrisy. Racism was just a corollary to that general strategy. He went for the kind of American who saw John Wayne as America’s greatest war hero. That love of the fake cuts a big swath in American culture from Hollywood to the WWF. It pervades certain strains of evangelical Christianity, the kind that love a preacher who is also a business man or even a con-man. Spiro Agnes, corrupt and cowardly, was a perfect instrument for Nixon and Reagan the perfectly hollow fulfillment of that political vision.

    There is something pathetic in the politics of someone like John Kerry, who thought his status as a veteran would make a claim on the loyalty or admiration of people, who might not be loyal or admirable.

  16. Nqabutho August 17, 2017 at 9:43 pm | #

    It’s not the scam- artist as such; the American people (i.e., the white people) want white supremacists. If the scam artist is peddling the white supremacist fantasy, the people will allow themselves to be deceived and they’ll buy it. (All Republicans are scam- artists; but if their con does not include the racist appeal, they don’t have much luck. Trump didn’t bother with the ulterior elite agenda.) Others, about half the people, apparently, will respond to rational appeal.

  17. b. September 25, 2018 at 6:21 pm | #

    “Yet the dream dies hard, particularly among Democrats.”

    The biparty elections are like a Monty Hall game show reprising the goat paradox – there’s a Judas Goat behind each of the two of the three doors, and the third door has been barred shut.

    It is not a dream, it is the manufacturing of candidates. There is no inherent contradiction between running cons and recruiting them based on their expected “appeal”. The dream candidate is a lot like Trump – a bullshit artists who truly believes his own BS. The self-conscious acts of Clinton, Cruz, Rubio cannot possibly compete with a Trump, or Obama.

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