Last week, the state of Kentucky and the YouTube-watching masses of the United States met retired Lt. Col. Amy McGrath, the first female Marine to fly an F-18 in combat. In her debut campaign ad, McGrath rocks a bomber jacket and stomps majestically down an airport runway as planes whoosh and scream and an inspirational instrumental swells. She reminisces about her childhood dream “to land on aircraft carriers, because that’s the toughest flying you can do,” a fantasy her own congressman told her was unrealistic given that women weren’t allowed in action. McGrath embarked on a campaign to change the law, joining the armed forces just in time to see the ban on female aces revoked. After 20 years spent bombing al-Qaida and the Taliban, she’s given herself a new mission: “to take on a Congress full of career politicians who treat the people of Kentucky like they’re disposable.” The spot ends on a close-up of a Marine uniform with white text superimposed: “Amy McGrath: Democrat for Congress.”
This Mitch McConnell–hating fighter pilot seems less like a real-life politician than a carbon-based answer to a hypothetical question: What would it look like if the Democrats grew a candidate in a lab who was invulnerable to Republican attacks? Just try to criticize the patriot who broke a military glass ceiling and the sound barrier. McGrath is an unassailable role model, radiating toughness and grit. Give her a different party affiliation, and she’d be dropping freedom bombs into the pleasure centers of the GOP brain.
OH DEAR GOD YES— ROSIE (@Rosie) August 2, 2017
TAKE BACK OUR COUNTRY https://t.co/mfm8t3EHRw
More than anything else, the riotous social media response to McGrath’s announcement revealed a Democratic desperation for heroes. After 2016’s humiliation and devastation, the left is searching for candidates both nationally and locally who can deliver the country from its current abjection. McGrath’s commercial is not just an inspiring one-off. (“Seems like it’s not a *great* idea to tell @AmyMcGrathKY she can’t do something,” one supporter observed.) It’s an emblem of what the party can and should be, namely a repository of candidates who look like Republicans and talk and think like Democrats, thus ensuring they’ll win every vote in every election.
McGrath follows in the combat boot–clad footsteps of Jason Kander, a Missouri Democrat who ran against Republican Sen. Roy Blunt in November … and lost. Kander, a former Army captain with a tour in Afghanistan under his belt, produced a remarkably subtle campaign commercial in which, to his credit, he neither wrestled Muslim crocodiles nor hurled the estate tax into the sun. He did, though, put together a rifle while wearing a blindfold.
Kander “respects” his gun, he says in the spot. He praises both the Second Amendment and background checks—“so that terrorists can’t get their hands on one of these”—and finishes up by approving “this message, because I’d like to see Sen. Blunt do this.” This presumably meant “assemble a gun” rather than “create a viral video.”
Democrats aren’t generally known for their rough-and-tumble machismo. They rep the party of kale and fine print, of multicultural angels dancing on the head of a pin. In their TV spots, McGrath and Kander look like they’ve been engineered to pre-empt opponents’ criticism: You think liberals are too flaccid and out of touch and that they don’t love America? Behold these seasoned warriors who mow down the nation’s enemies with big machines. Go Dems!
Kander may have lost his Missouri contest, but he won 230,000 more votes than Hillary Clinton did in the state, a feat that prompted Politico to dub him one of the party’s most talented top-liners. For Democrats, Kander was something of a proof of concept, evidence that a man with a Republican’s résumé and a Democrat’s disdain for Republicans can at least come close to turning a red state blue. In January, he shocked his colleagues in the Missouri legislature when he transformed what was supposed to be a gracious toast to Republican newcomers into a jeremiad against voter suppression. He also told a group of New Hampshire Democrats that he wants to rescue “the American dream from the nightmare that is Donald Trump.”
McGrath, who is running in a Kentucky district that went for Trump by 15 points, embodies a more inclusive vision. In a recent interview with CNN, she lauded the president for “surround[ing] himself with my fellow Marines” and said, “I understand why voters voted for Donald Trump.” McGrath’s appeal, it seems, has less to do with her potential to eviscerate the other side than with the possibility that a Taliban-routing gal from the Bluegrass State might have the power to woo some uneasy Republicans.
If Kander and McGrath are both liberals with conservative CVs, Randy Bryce has settled into a different kind of ambiguity: He belongs to the white working class that both parties would like to claim as their own. Bryce presents himself as a rough-around-the-edges softy, marrying no-nonsense fortitude with a big heart. He got into politics, he told GQ, because he was tired of the way Washington neglected veterans, blue-collar men and women, and the sick. In June, the candidate from southeastern Wisconsin (his Twitter handle is @IronStache) released an ad that spotlighted his history as an ironworker. “Let’s trade places, Paul Ryan. You can come work the iron, and I’ll go to D.C.,” Bryce suggests to his Republican rival, in a line reminiscent of Kander’s NRA-stroking “I’d like to see Sen. Blunt do this.” Bryce, whose mother suffers from multiple sclerosis, is also seen ministering to his sick parent in images that alternate with sunlit wheat fields plucked from the chorus of “This Land Is Your Land” and spark showers at the factory where Bryce ekes out his honest living.
“I’m a working person,” Bryce tells the camera. He believes that “if somebody falls behind, we’re so much stronger if we carry them with us.” This is a skillful blend of Democratic compassion—Americans should take care of each other—and Republican can-do-ism. It evokes McGrath’s fusion of feminist messaging and martial chest-puffing and Kander’s simultaneous support for the Second Amendment and gun control. If the three Democrats have one thing in common, it’s that they are all meant to be all things to all people.
Even these unimpeachable heroes, though, don’t provide a simple answer to the Democrats’ biggest post-2016 question: Is it more important for the party to make overtures to the center or to rally the base? Is it better to mobilize behind the lieutenant colonel even a Republican could love or the army vet who pledges to wreak macho, GOP-style havoc upon the GOP?
What the rise of McGrath and Kandor and Bryce tells us for sure is that the left has grown tired of its effete reputation. Democrats want to grow a fantastic mustache, meld some iron, assemble a rifle, and land an F-18 on an aircraft carrier all while wearing a blindfold. It remains an open question whether any of these skills translate into political acuity. But in 2017, we know not to speculate about what career paths most fully prepare you for national office. Better a fighter pilot than a slumlord, a factory hand than a reality TV star. Democrats just ought to hope their anointees realize that the “toughest flying you can do” doesn’t always happen in an airplane cockpit.