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Opinion These ‘pragmatic progressives’ may be the future of the Democratic Party

Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.) speaks during a news conference on Jan. 29 in Washington.
Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.) speaks during a news conference on Jan. 29 in Washington. (Zach Gibson/Getty Images)

An earlier version of this column mischaracterized assistance that the group With Honor provided to Rep. Chrissy Houlahan (D-Pa.) and other newly elected veterans. With Honor spent $14 million to support veterans of both parties last year but did not donate funds directly to the candidates. This version has been updated.

The left wing of the Democratic Party has been getting much of the media attention since the new Congress convened, overshadowing the rise of a group of young Democratic military and intelligence veterans who may prove more important for 2020 and beyond.

These pragmatic Democrats accounted for some of the flipped Republican seats that gave their party control of the House. The progressive wing of the party may be potent, but many of its victories came in reliably Democratic seats, such as the Bronx-Queens district in New York that elected Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a charismatic media favorite.

A good showcase for these new Democrats is the House Armed Services Committee. The Democrats installed 14 freshmen on the panel, nearly half of their party’s total membership. Seven have served in the military, Foreign Service or CIA, and 10 are women. If you’re looking for bright new faces in the Democratic Party, this may be the most compelling group snapshot.

“The media have chosen to focus on progressive members, I understand that,” says Rep. Elissa Slotkin of Michigan, one of the new Armed Services members and a former CIA officer with three tours in Iraq. “But when it comes to the 2020 presidential election, the voters in the states we must win are moderate, pragmatic voters.”

This informal Democratic caucus of veterans offers a partisan opportunity, to be sure. “This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to retake the flag for the Democratic Party,” argues Slotkin. “We can show that it’s not just the Republicans who are the party of patriotism and love of country.”

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But the newly arrived veterans say they’re not an attack ad in uniform. “Service candidates are about country, not party,” says Rep. Chrissy Houlahan of Pennsylvania, another new Armed Services member and former Air Force officer. “Now, when the country is broken, I hope the veterans can be healers.”

Look at the range of experience of young Democratic veterans who have joined Armed Services, in addition to Slotkin and Houlahan: Rep. Jason Crow of Colorado won a Bronze Star as an Army officer in Iraq and then served two tours as an Army Ranger in Afghanistan; Rep. Jared Golden of Maine was a combat Marine in Iraq and Afghanistan; Rep. Andy Kim of New Jersey served in Afghanistan as a State Department adviser to Gen. David Petraeus; Rep. Elaine Luria of Virginia served 20 years in the Navy on combat ships; Rep. Mikie Sherrill of New Jersey was a Navy helicopter pilot.

This experience in war zones is precious because it breeds measured, skeptical judgment as well as patriotism. Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), a third-term member of the committee who was a Marine platoon leader in Iraq, says he came back from that deployment with a “a sense of betrayal” by “people in Washington who bent the truth to send us there.” The veterans understand that there are limits to U.S. power, as well as benefits.

Moulton has pushed his fellow Democrats to recruit more young veterans to run for office. His Serve America political action committee raised $4.4 million to support Democratic Party veterans last year, and 10 of the 21 candidates he supported won their races.

Trump’s erratic foreign policy record offers Democrats a special chance, unless they move so far left that they lose credibility with the public. “We have a massive opportunity to lead on national security, because we have a reckless and irresponsible commander in chief,” contends Moulton.

For a dysfunctional Congress, the rise of young veterans in both parties is a hopeful sign. “Regardless of what side of the aisle we come from, we understand we’re here to serve,” says Houlahan. Like many other newly elected vets, she received support from With Honor, a bipartisan group that spent $14 million to support veterans from both parties last year.

Rye Barcott, who helped found With Honor, says the group backed 19 winning veterans, 10 Democrats and nine Republicans. Each candidate had to pledge to “bring civility to politics” and “collaborate across the aisle.” The recipients have started co-sponsoring legislation together, and they plan a bipartisan caucus of young vets.

Some commentators have been worrying that the Democratic Party’s leftward drift could tilt it so far out of the mainstream that the process helps reelect President Trump in 2020. But before pushing the panic button, wait a minute:

If you look carefully at the Democratic caucus in the House, the voices of the new members who’ve served overseas as military or intelligence officers — let’s call them the pragmatic progressives — may matter more to the party’s future than the attention-grabbers on the far left.

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