During his State of the Union address, President Biden drew some hearty laughs while extending an olive branch to the new speaker of the House, Kevin McCarthy.
“Mr. Speaker,” Biden said, “I don’t want to ruin your reputation, but I look forward to working with you.”
Given the hyperpartisanship that afflicts Washington, the idea of a speaker from one party working with a president from another is indeed cause for incredulous chuckling.
We’re a long way from President Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill knocking off politics at 6 p.m. to knock back something stronger on occasion together. A long way from leaders of Senate Democrats and Republicans, George Mitchell from Maine and Bob Dole from Kansas, who considered each other friends first, adversaries second.
Representative Seth Moulton, a Democrat from Salem, believes we need to get back to a time when compromise was considered a strength, not a weakness; when civility was considered normal, not an aberration; when calling out one’s own party on a matter of principle was admired, not considered an act of treachery.
“So many problems in politics and Washington today are due to the lack of political courage,” Moulton said. “What’s lacking in Congress is not intelligence. It’s courage.”
It’s the kind of courage Moulton observed as a Marine during four combat tours of Iraq. It’s the kind of courage displayed by those who join organizations like City Year, Teach for America, the Peace Corps. Moulton believes those who serve their country and fellow citizens are predisposed to finding compromise, to get the mission done. There’s some evidence backing his view.
It’s no coincidence that partisanship has risen as the proportion of veterans in Congress has declined, from more than 70 percent between 1965 and 1975 to about 18 percent today. About three-quarters of the 80 veterans serving in the House are Republicans.
With that gap in mind, Moulton founded the Serve America PAC six years ago, to help elect Democratic candidates with military and public service backgrounds. It helped flip 18 congressional seats in 2018, giving Democrats control of the House. In 2020, it helped hold 16 seats and added two more to the Democratic House majority.
Last year, when Democrats were supposed to get hammered, a similar pattern held: Of the 18 incumbents Serve America backed, 15 kept their seats in battleground races as Republicans narrowly regained control of the House.
Serve America backed Representative Jake Auchincloss of Newton and Representative Jared Golden of Maine, who like Moulton are Marine combat veterans.
Golden voted against Biden’s “Build Back Better” spending package. Moulton voted for it, but admired Golden’s principled stand against it.
“Jared got a lot of backlash, but he showed political courage,” Moulton said. “That’s leadership. We need more of it. It’s often veterans who stand up to their party.”
Some of those who have stressed their commitment to public service and putting country before party have not survived today’s polarized political environment.
Navy veteran Elaine Luria, a Democrat who criticized Biden on military spending while angering Republicans by serving on the Jan. 6 House Select Committee, lost her Virginia congressional seat to a Republican Navy vet.
Two Republicans who Moulton admired for their willingness to put country before party are no longer in Congress: Liz Cheney lost her seat in Wyoming, while Adam Kinzinger of Illinois did not run again.
Kinzinger’s farewell speech in Congress was notable for criticizing his own party for minimizing what happened during the Capitol insurrection, while also criticizing Democrats who complain about the lack of “good Republicans” while cynically funding the campaigns of MAGA candidates they believe are easier to defeat.
If elections have consequences, so does the character of candidates.
“A lot of people talk about flipping seats, investing in districts, but we’re investing in leaders,” Moulton said. “When we started this, we had to recruit people. Now, my phone is ringing off the hook. Veterans want to serve.”
Putting the public service back in public servants is good politics, for both parties, and the rest of us.
Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.