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SETH MOULTON wrote a sugary letter to Nancy Pelosi, thanking the House minority leader for getting him an intern and a coveted assignment on the House Armed Services Committee. A few months later, after Democrats lost the 2016 presidential contest, the Massachusetts congressman called for Pelosi to step down.

The anecdote, reported by the Globe’s Annie Linskey, seemed to reveal a self-serving, disloyal hypocrite. But it also showcased something else: a different kind of Democrat, one the party establishment loathes, fears, and wants to stop. Moulton is independent and unafraid to challenge the status quo, even when he has been helped by it. In the clubby world of politics, that’s no way to win friends. But considered in the context of the nation’s Independence Day, those traits can trigger revolution — if paired with a vision bigger than self.


That’s exactly what Democrats need and what no Democrat, including Moulton, has yet to do. So far, what Moulton has done is define himself as rebel with a cause of yet to be determined change. That’s enough to irritate Pelosi and her loyalists while making them fret he will repeat the formula that sent him to Congress in the first place.

In 2014, Moulton ran against John Tierney, a fellow Democrat and Pelosi ally, and beat him in a primary. Now the establishment worries that Moulton will launch a primary challenge against Senator Ed Markey, whose term is up in 2020. Markey’s seat, when open, is supposed to be reserved for US Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III, whose political future is tied to the expectation that his name is enough to clear the path for him in Massachusetts and beyond. But given that Moulton has already managed to get his much less-famous name in the mix for the 2020 presidential contest, this brazen political newcomer is officially on the party radar screen as someone who can’t be trusted to follow the usual edicts of mentions and succession.


As Scott Ferson, one of Moulton’s political advisers, put it, when asked to respond to the story about Moulton’s gushy letter to Pelosi, “When they start paying attention to you, you’re a problem.” In that spirit, Ferson forwarded a press release he sent out in August 2014, headlined “John Tierney acknowledges Seth Moulton’s alive.” It was written after Tierney finally engaged Moulton on an issue, which happened more than a year after the Harvard graduate and Iraq War veteran challenged the veteran incumbent.

Since beating Tierney, Moulton has been a thorn in the establishment’s side, and one that’s not easily dislodged. His status as a decorated war hero gives him credibility on foreign policy matters and a presence on cable TV. Moulton didn’t publicly disclose his military honors until he was asked about them by the Globe’s Walter Robinson, but the citations for his medals state that he “fearlessly exposed himself to enemy fire” during battles for control of two cities in Iraq. Taking flak for the letter to Pelosi is minor league compared with that. “He doesn’t care. He’s almost embarrassingly immune to this kind of stuff,” said Ferson.

Still, politics is a different kind of battlefield. Moulton will have to navigate the thin line between courage and opportunism, amid sniping from detractors, plus figure out exactly what change he’s advocating. After Democrats lost a hotly contested House seat in Georgia, he tweeted the race “better be a wake-up call for Democrats” and added, “We need a genuinely new message.” And after the Georgia loss, Moulton again took up the charge against Pelosi, joining other Democrats who believe it’s time for her to go.


That may be true. But Democrats still need to know where any new leader plans to take them. Once Moulton figures that out, he can really expect the missiles to fly against him.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.