WASHINGTON — The next generation of veterans entering politics may be the best hope for restoring bipartisanship in Congress, according to one of the Senate's most well-known former military members.
"I see talent coming up," Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said during a Saturday interview on CNN. "I have great faith in our system of government over time. There have been strains before."
The comments came amid questions from David Axelrod, a former adviser to President Barack Obama and the director of the University of Chicago Institute of Politics, about the state of politics in America today.
McCain, who serves as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said that in years past, lawmakers in the Senate had fierce partisan battles when it came to crafting legislation, but "you could sit down and work it out because you had a personal relationship." He said that type of friendship is largely missing in Congress today.
"There's no group of Democrats that I could sit down with," he said.
McCain said he thinks that part of the past comity stemmed from the mutual respect among prominent veterans in the House and Senate. He cited Sens. Bob Dole and Daniel Inouye, two World War II heroes with dramatically different political beliefs who still worked together in Congress.
"There was a bond there," said McCain, a former Navy pilot and prisoner of war in Vietnam. "You know, both of them ended up terribly wounded in the same hospital. There was something unspoken between them. So, I do think that that mattered some."
But McCain praised the number of younger veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as "good for the institution," suggesting their shared military experience could produce similar cooperation and respect in the future.
Currently, 27 veterans who served in those two war zones are serving in the House and Senate. Four of them are women, including Iowa Republican Sen. Joni Ernst, who McCain singled out as a notable next-generation leader during the interview.
The overall number of veterans in Congress has dropped steadily for decades, with only about 19 percent of elected lawmakers having military experience today. That figure was more than 70 percent in the 1970s.
Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.