Moulton and the great mentioners

Speculation is stirring; the mentioners are mentionning.  Despair about the lack of a Democratic bench is giving way to thoughts of who may really be “out there” as potential contenders for opposition party candidates for President in 2020.  So there it was, in this morning’s Boston Globe front-page speculation about a potential 2020 presidential bid by Seth Moulton, barely into his third year in Congress. Sunday’s New York Times  indicated Moulton hasn’t ruled it out.

And why not?  Moulton already has 820 more days of governmental experience than our incumbent President, who had exactly zero days when he was inaugurated in January. Moulton had actually served his country before seeking public office, doing four tours as a Marine in Iraq. Like Trump, Moulton took on the establishment, running against and defeating longtime Congressman John Tierney in the 2014 party primary.  He reinforced his credentials as one of the new generation by supporting an alternative to Nancy Pelosi for Speaker of the House.

Moulton has been an early and outspoken critic of Trump, starting with the President’s ill-considered Muslim ban, which, Moulton said, would help the terrorists’ recruitment efforts.  Moulton had also been highly critical of Obama’s policies for their failure to develop governance strategies for times after despotic leaders had been overturned. He has called credibly for “clear goals and objectives” in our foreign policy. He has gained visibility in the national media, most recently as a panelist on Bill Maher’s show last Friday night.

But Moulton is playing another important role as well, one that may be antithetical to becoming his party’s nominee and one that may better serve this country’s interests than advancing his own candidacy.  Moulton has aligned himself with 60 members of the House who call themselves New Democrats. He recently appeared at a New England Council panel discussion with three of them: blue Connecticut’s Jim Himes,  and red state congressmen Ron Kind of Wisconsin and Terri Sewell, the only Democrat in Alabama’s  delegation. They describe the New Democrats as pragmatic moderates, most with private sector experience, pro-growth, and policy wonks.  As Sewell put it, they would “rather be at the table than on the menu.”

This group echoes the so-called Tuesday group of Republicans, also self-described moderates, who resist reflexive ideology.  Both groups seek more jobs, more efficient government, and less stridency on social issues. They are more transactional and, working together, could change the tone in Washington.

For independents and others who are more comfortable in the center, the potential for the New Democrats and the Tuesday Group of Republicans to work together and get something accomplished on issues like infrastructure and tax reform has great appeal. But is a New Democrat someone to whom the party of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren would turn in the 2020 presidential primary? Last year, Hillary Clinton was a centrist nominee and, though she won the popular vote, she lost to you-know-whom. Partisan activists may be looking for ideological purity next time.  The centrist Democratic nominee hasn’t succeeded since 1992 when Bill Clinton came out of the Democratic Leadership Council, organized as an antidote to the George McGovern reform wing of the party that lost resoundingly in 1972.

Many Democratic Party liberals are sure to call Moulton’s and the New Democrats’ moderate “third way” and practical perspective as Republican lite. But this new generation of pragmatists should not be deterred. Absence of conciliation has contributed to Congress’ failure to perform and historically low public opinion ratings. Most people are fed up with gridlock born of partisanship.

A critical dilemma for those working to mitigate Congress’ hyper partisanship by reaching across the aisle is that such helpful initiatives may ultimately be self-defeating in the electoral world. There may be as few as 23 swing districts in the House. Democratic organizations seeking to reclaim the House  in 2018 have already started to focus on defeating Republicans in those districts, the very people who have shown the greatest inclination to reach across the aisle, work with the New Democrats and serve the country’s interests.  Not all of these so-called moderates are the same.  Some are worth saving more than others. It’s one scenario if Democrats defeat the worst of the moderate Republicans to regain control of the House and restore some institutional balance in Washington. But it would be a setback for the country if the better moderates are beaten by Tea Party (now Freedom Caucus) Republicans in primaries and go on to replace them in Congress.

At some point, Moulton will have to decide whether he wants to seek common ground for the greater good, or join what will soon be a growing flock of political birds succumbing to Potomac Fever and catering to the extremes of their parties to capture the Presidential nomination.  He can also hope that by not pandering he can make a case for bipartisanship and be rewarded by getting traction in the quadrennial sweepstakes. He should remember that the last House member to jump directly into the Presidency was James Garfield in 1880, after serving in the House for 18 years.

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