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Massachusetts Is Ground Zero in the Battle for the Soul of the Democratic Party

Home to at least four potential 2020 president candidates, the state has become a microcosm of the divisions on the left.

Getty/Courtesy of Seth Moulton

The headline at The Boston Globe on Wednesday was incredulous: Could 3 people from Massachusetts really run for president?” Yet it was a question the hometown paper had to ask this week, with news that Barack Obama is urging former Governor Deval Patrick to consider a White House bid and that Representative Seth Moulton plans to attend an Iowa steak fry this September. If either Patrick or Moulton wants to take on President Donald Trump in 2020, they could be entering a Democratic primary field “the size of an Iowa cornfield,” as New York magazine’s Ed Kilgore put it. They could also be facing a fellow Bay Stater who’s a national leader of the ascendent populist-progressive movement: Senator Elizabeth Warren.

But if Warren, 68, is a natural heir to the Senator Bernie Sanders wing of the party—if he stays out of the race—both Patrick and Moulton represent different stylistic and substantive paths the party could take. Each also has vulnerabilities that mirror those of other White House hopefuls on the left.

Patrick, who turned 61 on Monday, is a stirring speaker who had a solidly liberal record as governor, but his work in corporate America and private equity will turn off some on the left. He has executive experience, but not a particularly extraordinary legacy from his time in office, and it remains to be seen whether an Obama-esque inspirational message would be the right tack against Trump.

Moulton, 38, is a Harvard-educated Marine veteran who got to Congress by unseating an incumbent Democrat, former Representative John Tierney, in 2014. He’s continued to buck his party’s establishment in Washington, backing Representative Tim Ryan’s failed bid to replace Nancy Pelosi as House minority leader. Moulton’s political fearlessness and decorated service in Iraq could make him a formidable candidate, but his emphasis on bipartisanship in our hyper-partisan era could alienate the left.

That is, Massachusetts has become a microcosm of the divisions within the Democratic Party and the battle over its future.

“You have a real range of Democratic ideology in the state of Massachusetts, which in some ways reflects the tension within the Democratic Party nationally,” said Fred Bayles, a professor at Boston University’s College of Communication. Jeffrey Berry, a
political science professor at Tufts University, told me the state’s presidential prospects are “reflective of the larger field and the choices Democrats have to make in the 2020 primaries. There will be a need for each of them to somehow distinguish themselves from plain old traditional liberalism.”

We know how Warren would distinguish herself. For years she’s been attacking Wall Street, lobbyists, and other monied interests, all while pushing Democrats to the left on economic issues. Many progressives proudly declare that they’re “from the Elizabeth Warren wing of the Democratic Party.” “There would be a passionate love affair between rank-and-fine Democrats and Liz Warren” if she ran, Berry said. “Elizabeth Warren’s star power is very different from Seth Moulton’s or Deval Patrick’s,” said Lauren Dezenski, who writes Politico’s Massachusetts Playbook.

The difference has been evident at town halls, especially after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell tried to silence Warren on the Senate floor earlier this year. McConnell’s defense for doing so (“She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”) became a feminist rallying cry of the anti-Trump resistance. “People literally have ‘Nevertheless, she persisted’ tattooed onto their bodies,” Dezenski said. “People show up with cross-stitches of that quote. There are painted portraits of her face.”

The question with Warren, as with Sanders, is whether she’s too far to the left to win the general election. “Do we really think the country is going to be looking to a very liberal Harvard Law professor to lead them out of the wilderness in three and half years?” asked Jon Keller, a political analyst for the Boston CBS affiliate WBZ-TV. “With all due respect to Liz Warren, I find it hard to believe her set of credentials would be attractive to swing voters.”

Moulton’s military experience and independent streak could be attractive to swing voters, but he’s also become one of President Donald Trump’s most vocal critics, which surely will appeal to the Democratic base. Of the Massachusetts candidates considering the presidency, Berry said, “He’s the easiest to see on stage in presidential debate with Donald Trump, calling him a draft-dodging wimp, countering every punch from Trump with two of his own.”

In a profile last week, Politico’s Michael Kruse wrote that “it’s Moulton’s allies who make him atypical—military leaders like David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal, experienced political minds like David Gergen. These people look at Moulton and see the face of the future of the Democratic Party, a social progressive who’s fiscally more moderate. They see somebody who could chip away at the intractable ideological conflict that is crippling this country and appeal to the sorts of voters who have turned away from the party.” Moulton is from “one of the least liberal areas of the famously liberal state,” and he’s “not talking about yanking to the left or hewing more to the center—or much policy, period—so much as he’s stressing the philosophy of bipartisanship that undergirds the concept of national service.”

Though Moulton has called himself progressive in the past, Berry said, he is “a little bit harder to pin down ideologically.” He’s part of the moderate New Democrat Coalition in the House, which describes itself as “forward-thinking Democrats who are committed to pro-economic growth, pro-innovation, and fiscally responsible policies.” According to the coalition’s website, “New Democrats are a solutions oriented coalition seeking to bridge the gap between left and right by challenging outmoded partisan approaches to governing.” This cuts both ways in terms of Moulton’s political future. On the one hand, Republican political consultant Pat Griffin told NBC Boston, “this is a guy who can not only appeal to the Democratic base, but can also begin to move to a place where Elizabeth Warren can never go and Bernie Sanders can never go, which is the middle, which is independents.” But will the Democratic base really embrace him in a primary if they’ve got more liberal alternatives?

The same question could be asked about Patrick. Separate and apart from his liberal record, he has a history of working in the corporate sector, specifically in the “executive suites and boardrooms of controversial corporate behemoths Texaco, Coca-Cola, and Ameriquest Mortgage Co.,” according to the Globe. He now works for Bain Capital, the private-equity firm co-founded by Mitt Romney. This would likely cause him problems, just as it did the 2012 Republican nominee for president. “Certainly Deval Patrick wouldn’t think of attacking corporate CEOs the way [Warren] does,” Keller said. “He’s made a living off of schmoozing corporate CEOs.”

Senators Cory Booker and Kamala Harris are going to have similar problems with the left. As The Week’s Ryan Cooper wrote on Thursday, “there are quite substantive reasons why a leftist might not trust any of those candidates. The probably accurate perception that all three candidates are being groomed by the same big-money donors that clustered around Hillary Clinton will only deepen the divide...” For their part, Obama and his allies must be hoping Patrick’s considerable political skills can overcome this perception. “He has the ability to touch people’s hearts as well as their minds,” Valerie Jarrett recently told Politico. “I think our country is ready for that now—let alone in three years.”

Historically, Massachusetts has played an outsized role in American politics, even if many of the state’s presidential candidates never made it to the White House. “Ego is among our leading exports to the rest of the country and world,” Keller joked. “Every aspiring Massachusetts pol—maybe in their teen years, maybe on a school trip—wanders through the Kennedy Library, stands in front of the Oval Office [exhibit], and thinks to themselves, ‘Why not me?’”

In fact, Democrats could conceivably have the option of running an actual Kennedy in 2020: Representative Joe Kennedy III, the 36-year-old grandson of Robert F. Kennedy. A graduate of Harvard Law School, where he was a student of Warren’s, he occupies Barney Frank’s old congressional seat. Meet the Next President Kennedy,” Town & Country declared in a profile last month. And a certain former presidential candidate seems to think he has White House potential:

Kennedy is perhaps the darkest of horses among Bay State Democrats, but he would have one built-in advantage against every other candidate, including Trump: As Berry told WBUR in May, “He’s an heir to the greatest brand name in American politics.”