Requiem for a Candidate: Seth Moulton

You couldn’t have designed a more perfect candidacy. To fail. He’s too centrist. He lacks a national brand. He entered the contest later than most. He’s a straight white male. He’s a Congressman, not a Senator or ex-VP.

One or two of those are surmountable. Not all. With Pete Buttigieg and Julian Castro around, there were more compelling youthful choices. Moulton wasn’t even the most prominent candidate from his home state of Massachusetts.

His congressional district beckons. He’s facing multiple primary challengers for 2020. Several candidates will prompt a Requiem article over the next few weeks. The speed of exit is directly tied to other electoral opportunities. It’s no accident that Eric Swalwell, John Hickenlooper, Jay Inslee, and Moulton were the first to get out.

The minute Steve Bullock decides he’d like to run for senator, he’ll get his Requiem piece. Otherwise, he, like already out of office John Delaney, several years before re-election Michael Bennet, and anything to get out of doing his day job Bill deBlasio will persist for a bit.

So we’re done here, yes?

Not yet. One more topic.

Moulton’s almost distinguishing trait was being a combat veteran. He’s not the only one. Service in the post-9/11 wars is an important part of Buttigieg and Tulsi Gabbard’s resume too. It’s more effective for them.

If a bookish gay candidate voluntarily deployed to Afghanistan it pushes back against stereotypes. It’s helpful for a female candidate. In general, female veterans have seen notable electoral success in congressional races over the past decade. At some point, I need to locate or build some data on this, but at a glance, it’s a positive.

It works well for Democrats in swing district contests. Several of the notable seat flips in the midterm were accomplished by vets. In the Volunteer Military Era, service has a very different meaning than it did in previous generations.

In the 19th century, many presidents were either part of the revolutionary generation, or had significant military background. Andrew Jackson, William Harrison, and Zachary Taylor ran on their military achievements.

In the latter part of the century, having served notably in the Civil War was customary. The first president elected after the war was General Ulysses S. Grant, who was followed in time by those lower in the ranks.

Then there was a gap. The United States didn’t have another labor-intensive war until World War I. During that time Teddy Roosevelt got himself sent to Cuba, took his troops up San Juan Hill, and his political career immediately took off. That was an exception.

WW1 Artillery Captain Harry Truman was the first president elected after WW2. He’d already dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, so his military service likely wasn’t a key factor. He was followed by the guy who led the invasion of Normandy. Dwight Eisenhower is the most recent in a long line of presidents who owe their political career to their military service.

JFK might have been a political star no matter what. His experience after being shipwrecked by a Japanese destroyer sure didn’t hurt. Lyndon Johnson took a quick break from serving in congress to fly along on a few WW2 missions. He even managed to get awarded a Silver Star.

Richard Nixon served in the war too. As did Gerald Ford. If you were a Greatest Generation politician, you probably served. Jimmy Carter didn’t participate in the war, but that’s because he was at the Naval Academy. He spent several years on active duty.

Ronald Reagan was an exception because he never deployed. Warner Brothers attempted to get him deferred. Then his bad vision intervened. But he’d signed up for the Army Reserves several years ahead of the war.

George H.W. Bush was the youngest aviator in the entire Navy when he got shot down and rescued at sea in the Pacific. He’s also the last president to have actively served. If you’d told someone 30 years ago that the candidate with more military service would lose each of the next several elections, they’d have laughed you out of the room.

It began with Bill Clinton, draft dodger, in 1992. His efforts to avoid being sent to Vietnam were an issue in his primary campaign. Many thought it would be a problem against the war hero Bush. It wasn’t.

He next faced Bob Dole, who lost the use of an arm fighting in Italy. Again, no problem. Many in Clinton’s generation did things to avoid Vietnam. Some who served deployed against their wishes. Don’t get me wrong, it didn’t help him. But to some extent both Clinton and Dole were emblematic of their respective generations.

Neither Bush, nor Dole went out of their way to talk about their military experience, and with their war 50 years in the past, it also reminded voters they were old.

George W. Bush was next up. He also managed to stay out of Vietnam, getting posted to the Texas Air National Guard. He defeated Al Gore, who voluntarily enlisted after graduating from Harvard, and John Kerry who enlisted after leaving Yale, spent a few months as a swift boat commander, and won several medals.

Bush managed to use Kerry’s service against him, aided by some very controversial statements the recently discharged Kerry made in congressional hearings back in the early 1970s.

This made four straight victories for someone who avoided Vietnam over someone who served in a major war. When Barack Obama won the 2008 Democratic nomination, neither he, nor any of his major competitors served.

He then went on to defeat John McCain, whose political career was immeasurably aided by his military experience. Beyond being the fifth straight loss for the veteran, it was the last time a presidential nominee has served.

Does this mean military service is now a negative for a presidential campaign?

I don’t think so. McCain was undone by a collapsing economy. His service unquestionably helped him get nominated. Kerry’s military history helped his career for decades. It’s just not an end in itself.

Being a veteran was the most remarkable part of Moulton’s pitch. That’s not a winning formulation, particularly for someone who didn’t have a deployment that formed the basis for a novel or movie.

A major side-effect of having a voluntary military is the large percentage of Americans who do not regularly interact with those who have served. People from upscale coastal suburbs are simply less likely to sign up. An Alabamian is a more frequent enlistee than a denizen of Silicon Valley.

Millions of adult Americans can’t relate to the military lifestyle and trade-offs. It’s a nice biographical extra-curricular for a candidate. It’s not a shared national experience.

We will have a veteran in the White House sooner than later. It’s quite possible that vet will be female. The odds are at least even this person is a Democrat. It won’t be someone who resembles Seth Moulton.

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