As Moulton seeks various political opportunities, he must balance his cards right so as not to lose the connections he will need in the future.

Credit: AP

Can Moulton Play The Outsider, Without Alienating The Insiders?

February 14, 2017

An earnest, moralizing, Ivy League-educated military hero — young and handsome — returns to Massachusetts, ambitiously shops for political opportunity, and wins election to high office against the wishes of the state’s Democratic Party establishment.  

It worked for John Kerry, and seems to be paying off for Seth Moulton.

Kerry, notes the Capitol Hill aide who suggested the comparison, annoyed establishment Democrats when he “skipped the line” and won election as Lieutenant Governor in 1982. Just two years later, he exacerbated the tensions by beating Democratic Congressman James Shannon for what turned out to be the last open U.S. Senate seat in the state for a quarter-century. He infuriated many colleagues, including Ted Kennedy, by opposing Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd for Minority Leader, after Democrats lost the Senate majority in 1994.

Moulton, of course, defeated incumbent Democrat John Tierney on his way to winning his Congressional seat. He was one of the first and most vocal opponents of re-electing Nancy Pelosi as House Minority Leader, after the 2016 elections. He is also rumored to be eyeing a promotion to the Senate before long — possibly even by running against another Democratic incumbent, Ed Markey, in 2020.

That would, theoretically, have Moulton taking the oath as Senator at age 42 — the same age Kerry did.

Moulton, in a phone interview last week, says that while he respects Kerry, he has never thought of the Senator, Secretary of State, and near-President as a career model. “He’s a different generation,” Moulton said.

He might want to consider it, though. Kerry accomplished a difficult trick that Moulton is now trying to pull off: playing the independent outsider, willing to risk the wrath of his own party’s leaders, without getting squashed or marginalized by them.

So far, based on conversations I’ve had with people on Capitol Hill, it’s working: he seems generally well respected, with good working relationships.

“He is viewed as somebody who has a lot of potential,” says one high-ranking congressional staffer, offered anonymity to speak honestly about another member, “because he does have a compelling story to tell.”

That doesn’t mean they view Moulton in quite the heroic terms that have him enjoying glowing attention back home. The same staffer, like many others in Washington I spoke with, views Moulton as ambitious, self-promoting, and opportunistic — “incredibly opportunistic,” says one. His rock star reputation doesn’t jibe with the Moulton they interact with, who is a bit socially awkward and cautious with his comments.

But Moulton, despite ousting their colleague, has been treated well by Massachusetts members of Congress. Richard Neal, the dean of the nine-member delegation, led the way in his acceptance by the group, and any occasional clash between Moulton and the others seems to be no worse than is true for any of the others.

That extended to the Democratic House leadership, and even Nancy Pelosi, who sat him on Armed Services and Budget committees when he arrived three years ago, and kept him there even after his attempt to oust her. Moulton seemed to thrive well enough during his first term, despite criticizing President Barack Obama’s conduct of the war in the Middle East, reaching across the partisan aisle on legislation, criticizing Washington business as usual, and being relatively late to endorsing Hillary Clinton. (Moulton was holding out hope that Joe Biden would run.)

Moulton’s willingness to oppose Pelosi didn’t cost him, and instead elevated his standing with those outside her orbit. Minority Whip Steny Hoyer — who is known to covet Pelosi’s position if she leaves — elevated Moulton to Senior Whip. The Future Forum, a group of 26 young Democrat House members, made him Vice Policy Chair. The Bipartisan Working Group promoted him to Vice Chair.

“A lot of insiders now want to get to know him,” said one close Congressional observer.

It’s pretty clear that those same anti-establishment behaviors have been a big part of what makes Moulton increasingly popular back in Massachusetts — so popular, he had no challengers in his first re-election bid last year, none lining up for 2018, standing-room supportive crowds at recent district appearances, and constant talk of his potential for state-wide office. He has been willing to stick his nose into issues back in the Commonwealth: Moulton was willing to criticize Charlie Baker in 2015 for comments about refugees, when the Republican Governor was at his most popular. He displeased some by favoring a marijuana decriminalization ballot question last year; and angered others by supporting one on charter school expansion.

As many point out, with a tinge of resentment, Moulton tends to get a lot more credit and attention for some of these things than other members who do the same things. His military background, fresh face, bipartisan rhetoric, and willingness to criticize have made him a media darling, bolstered by his own knack for the limelight (another trait he shares with the young John “Live Shot” Kerry).

That media coverage has worked well to make him seem dynamic, exciting, and shoot-from-the-cuff honest — a young version of John McCain’s “Straight Talk Express” image.

That’s at odds with what those who deal with him in Washington experience, and what I have found in interviewing him over the past several years. He is accessible, cordial, self-deprecating, and gracious, but also cautious, humorless, and trite on almost any topic outside of those he is currently fired up about.

In our phone interview last week, I started by asking him about the importance of how he is viewed by others in Washington. “I think about it in the sense that I’m a human being with friends and colleagues, but I try not to let it affect what I do,” Moulton said, with little further elaboration.

At the end, I asked him whether there were any personal traits he had tried to change or work on since becoming a congressman.

“I am constantly striving to learn and improve,” he replied. “There’s a long list of things. We have an attitude on our team that we can always be improving.” It took considerable prodding to get him to offer an example: learning to listen more, rather than debate.

Those are hardly scintillating responses; I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a public figure utter a more impersonal phrase than “in the sense that I’m a human being.”

Moulton did not mention, and as far as I can tell has never publicly mentioned, that he has a girlfriend who now lives with him in Salem — a fact I later stumbled into and confirmed with his office. It made me think, again, of Kerry. Kerry met Teresa Heinz in 1992, four years after his first marriage ended; by the time they wed in 1994, the Boston Globe was writing that “After decades of bucking the system … Kerry’s aides and colleagues said he has tempered his instinctive role as an outsider and embraced the power of moving government from within.”

Not that Kerry stopped taking stands; his split with Kennedy over Dodd happened the next year. And nobody expects, or wants, Moulton to lose his willingness to challenge the establishment.

The question on people’s minds in Washington is whether Moulton can turn a remarkable two-year surge into a sustainable, effective, career. Or, as one Hill staffer suggests, will he get bored as a low-ranking minority-party peon in slow-moving Washington, and go off to find something he considers more worthy of his time, burning bridges behind him?

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