North Shore Congressman Seth Moulton is one of the most visible leaders in the campaign to change House Democratic leadership for the impending Democratic-majority House session. It’s an underdog bid that has earned condemnation from many observers, many of whom have openly wondered what on earth Moulton is thinking, putting his political career on a collision course with the seemingly invincible Nancy Pelosi, the current Democratic House leader.
Their criticisms echo those heard about an intra-party battle just a short drive south from Moulton’s district.
Critics said that Ayanna Pressley’s primary campaign against incumbent Michael Capuano was unwarranted, disrespectful, nakedly ambitious, and meritless. Capuano, they said, had done nothing to deserve ouster from Congress; replacing him would serve only to toss aside valuable experience and clout.
And besides, they said repeatedly, Pressley had not articulated a coherent argument against him. What on earth was she thinking?
Moulton’s maneuvering might not end as successfully as Pressley’s. He and his opposition cohorts seem to have botched the messaging, been caught under-prepared, and are simply up against one of the best retail parliamentary politicians ever, on her own preferred playing arena.
But before dismissing it as political suicide, it’s worth getting a clearer understanding about what’s really playing out now in Washington.
After all, it can be true that Pelosi absolutely should be the next speaker of the house, and that Moulton is playing his cards right by opposing her.
A Viable Strategy
First, the opposition that Moulton is part of hasn’t lost yet. Their strategy continues to be viable, if something of a long-shot.
The plan is to convince members of the caucus that, even if Pelosi wins the Nov. 28 caucus meeting vote, she cannot win a speaker vote on the House floor on Jan. 3 — that enough Democratic members will vote against her to prevent a majority, and force endless re-votes until she gives up, or someone else puts themselves forward against her.
To be sure, most observers expect Pelosi, one of the all-time great vote-wranglers, to secure the necessary votes before then. She made a huge step in that direction Tuesday afternoon, securing the support of Congresswoman Marcia Fudge, who Moulton had been trying to persuade to run for speaker.
But even supporters acknowledge that she doesn’t have the votes yet. In addition to 16 who have signed a letter declaring their intent to defy her, there are at least a handful of others known to be equally committed, and more believed to be silently in sync.
Once the caucus realizes that Pelosi can’t win the floor vote, the theory goes, some bloc of Democrats will approach the oppositionists with a deal: let’s join together and unite behind a mutually agreed upon slate of leaders. That bloc might be the Congressional Black Caucus, the 68-strong moderate New Democrats Coalition, followers of a current member of leadership, or some haphazard amalgam.
That’s in part why the oppositionists have not put forward their own candidate for speaker; they want that opening to serve as an enticement for someone to bring over a group of votes.
But, now that it looks increasingly unlikely to happen before the caucus vote, the oppositionists are looking for, in effect, a place-holder candidate for that vote.
That’s what they eventually did two years ago, when Ohio’s Tim Ryan ultimately offered himself up after the oppositionists forced a delay in the caucus vote. He received 63 votes. Any similar number this time could easily bolster the belief that the oppositionists will really hold firm on the House floor, which could prompt negotiations over the following month to settle on a new leadership slate.
Time For A Change?
It would be odd, certainly, for the caucus to depose their leaders after a victory. But the oppositionists, including Moulton, made the same case in late 2016, after a fourth consecutive disappointing election left them with 194 of 435 seats. As noted above, more than five dozen voted against Pelosi for minority leader in their caucus meeting.
Their argument then, as now, is that the Democratic caucus needs a shakeup in the top leadership trio of Pelosi, Steny Hoyer, and Jim Clyburn. All three are in their late 70s. They have held the top posts for more than a decade. Although they excel at their jobs, they are not, collectively, representative of “the new voices and emerging leaders who can get us to where we need to go,” as Moulton put it in a new CNN editorial.
Over the past two years, Moulton worked hard to recruit, support, and raise money for candidates representing what he thinks of as new leadership —most of whom ran on the promise of shaking up the party hierarchy, if not explicitly on voting against Pelosi.
To the oppositionists, that approach is why Democrats gained close to 40 House seats in the midterm elections, many of which came in moderate or somewhat conservative districts. Even Pelosi understood the political realities and gave candidates plenty of leeway to distance themselves from her on the campaign trail.
Yet, with the voting over, she expects them all to simply re-elect the same set of leaders — imperiling, the oppositionists believe, all of those gains. The top three have run as a slate, scaring off all potential challengers, leaving no political cover for those members who want to demonstrate some new-leadership vote for the folks back home.
Pelosi and her allies have claimed sexism, but seem to have practiced it themselves by dismissing the role of women in the opposition group. (The #fivewhiteguys hashtag is effective, but inaccurate.) They have claimed ageism, but seem to have practiced it themselves by blocking anyone under age 75 from top leadership positions.
Most of all, they have behaved exactly as you would expect smart, strong, savvy, successful politicians to operate. That’s precisely why they are so very valuable in leading the Democrats — especially as wartime consiglieri in the time of Trump — but it’s also precisely why a new generation of good-government progressives want to retire them.
Seth Doesn’t Care What You Think
When Seth Moulton ran for Congress in 2014, all the establishment Democrats — including Pelosi — huddled instead around incumbent John Tierney, who was heading to near-certain defeat to Republican Richard Tisei.
Unsurprisingly, since then he has not tended to assume that any of those establishment figures know what’s best for the party, let alone to believe that they want what’s best for him.
Moulton is exceptionally earnest, exceedingly self-confident, and endlessly ambitious. These are not traits that easily fit the role of a junior member of the U.S. House of Representatives, where paths to attain and keep power usually require long years of deal-making, favor-trading, and cynical back-room operating.
Almost nobody expects Moulton to stick around the House for long. There has been plenty of speculation that he will run against Ed Markey in a 2020 primary. If not, he will undoubtedly try to ingratiate himself with presidential candidates, in hopes of a high-level appointment in a new Democratic administration. If all else fails, it is easy to picture him starting his own national political organization, or take the reins of an existing one.
For however long he does wish to remain in the U.S. House of Representatives, it’s hard to argue that he is hurting himself with his current behavior.
Yes, he has made at least temporary enemies among the liberal base, who reportedly came out to give him an earful this week at a town hall in Amesbury. But, that is a relatively small concern in the state’s second most conservative district. (The Salem News reported that a large portion of those at the town hall came from outside the district.) Moulton ran unopposed for re-election in 2016, and won two-thirds of the vote in 2018—after becoming well-known as a Pelosi opponent.
He would be pursuing any of those paths on the strength of his established brand as a new-generation leader, willing to take on anyone and not beholden to party establishment. Leading the oppositionists only helps secure that branding, regardless of the insurrection’s outcome.
And with Moulton, never discount the likelihood that he is not even seriously considering the potential ramifications of his actions.
He and Pressley seem to share a trait we never suspect in politicians: doing whatever they want, no matter what anybody else thinks.