Like many politicians, Seth Moulton keeps repeating what he believes gave him his first win.
Running for Congress in 2014, Moulton did something not commonly done in Massachusetts: The Harvard graduate and decorated veteran defeated an incumbent in a Democratic primary. It was a bold move. It worked out. It also set the stage for other primary challenges in the state just a few years later, from Representative Ayanna Pressley’s successful Democratic primary challenge of Mike Capuano in 2018 and even Joe Kennedy III’s unsuccessful attempt to unseat Ed Markey for US Senate last year.
But since then, Moulton has been in the national conversation three additional times. All were bold moves. All ended up with people calling him unreasonable.
First, he was among a small group of rogue Democrats who opposed Nancy Pelosi as speaker after the 2018 midterms. This was a challenge that was simply never going to work if one actually counted the votes. But Moulton and others knew they would get attention and brand themselves as rebels, and, as they hoped, the future of the party.
It turns out Moulton had it wrong. Instead of coming across as trailblazing, the group was criticized as white guys trying to take down the first female house speaker in United States history. And while Republicans in swing Congressional districts have branded Pelosi as evil, Democrats adore her and resented Moulton’s challenge.
Pelosi became speaker anyway and Moulton was a pariah in the Democratic majority.
This led to the second bold move that also made him look like he had no idea what he was doing. He ran for president. Remember that?
After burning bridges with House colleagues over Pelosi, it was looking impossible for him to play the long game to power in Washington. In fairness, Moulton never seemed interested in taking the decades-long, wait your turn route to seniority in the first place.
But the presidential run never took off. Anywhere. Most polls during the time showed him with zero support. He wasn’t even among the top 20 candidates to qualify for the initial primary debate. The gamble also backfired: Moulton opened the door to significant primary challenges for his Congressional seat. It is not like he could complain about it, either. After all, he primaried his way to power and made his reputation on challenging leadership.
In the end, he easily beat what primary competition he did have.
But Moulton’s third stunt, his secret trip to Afghanistan on Tuesday with Representative Peter Meijer, a Michigan Republican, is one that might be different. The pair took the unauthorized jaunt to the region, saying it was for Congressional oversight purposes and to see what was happening on the ground with their own eyes. Both, it should be noted, also have enjoyed quite a bit of cable news time in the past week criticizing the Biden administration for its Afghanistan policy. This trip only increased that attention.
From Moulton’s perspective, the risk-reward dynamic of this latest antic was more favorable than not. He might have predicted that the move would be widely panned. Indeed, it was. One Biden administration official told the Washington Post that “It’s as moronic as it is selfish.” Once Pelosi found out about the flight, she quickly sent a note to every member of Congress, saying, “I write to reiterate that the Departments of Defense and State have requested that Members not travel to Afghanistan and the region during this time of danger.”
But here is the thing: There is nothing that Pelosi or any of Moulton’s political enemies can really do to punish him.
At the moment, Pelosi is in the middle of some high-profile legislating over an infrastructure bill and a separate major $3.5 billion reconciliation bill — Moulton left proxy votes to help Pelosi’s cause. The speaker can’t come down too hard on him right now because the Democratic majority is so thin she can only lose three votes. She needs everyone, including Moulton, on the team.
Speaking of that proxy, one person who could be very mad at Moulton is Representative Jim McGovern of Worcester. McGovern filed Moulton’s proxy vote. Moulton reportedly lied to McGovern by saying he was in Massachusetts, not flying halfway around the world.
That is Washington. Back in his North Shore district, it is hard to see how anyone can score political points against the stunt. Republicans haven’t had a shot at this seat in nearly a decade. And few Democrats are even really backing the Biden administration on Afghanistan and cannot counter a larger Moulton point that more information on the issue is a good thing.
In the end, this third bold move from Moulton was reckless for those on the ground, especially for those who just want to get out of the country. A Moulton aide said they boarded a plane on the way out of Kabul with at least three empty seats. But the follow-up question worth asking here is why three more people in need of evacuation were not given those spots?
At the end of the day, Moulton turned a critical issue of safety — the hurried evacuation of Americans and allies from the clutches of the Taliban under a looming deadline — into a political performance. It’s unclear right now how much it may have hurt evacuation efforts, but it certainly didn’t help an already tense situation.
Pelosi reiterated during a Wednesday morning press conference: “We don’t want anyone to think this is a good idea and they should follow suit.”
But is the move a career-ending mistake, or even one with significant consequences? As of now, it doesn’t look that way. Like Moulton’s previous antics, the latest stunt may just be met with eyerolls and, yes, television time.