The Mod Squad
In Trump’s America, progressives like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez found fame. Now, it’s the turn of moderates
|Daniel Newhauser||Mar 22||41||8|
By Daniel Newhauser
During the bitter winter of 2019, Rep. Brendan Boyle trudged through the snows of Iowa and New Hampshire, stumping for Joe Biden, a presidential candidate whose campaign just wouldn’t kindle. Once back in Washington, Boyle found another chilly reception—now from a fellow Democrat. “I’m concerned about what you’re doing,” this more-progressive congressman warned. “Concerned that you’re inviting trouble for yourself.”
In other words, Boyle shouldn’t hitch his fate to Biden, or he’d risk a serious primary challenge from the left. How different things seem a year later; how good Boyle’s fortunes look now.
Political power can shift rapidly in Washington, and it has jerked to the center since November, granting opportunities to those who enjoyed far less attention during the Trump years. Back then, the Democrats’ public image was sometimes simplified (by fans and foes alike) in the guise of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and “The Squad,” the nickname for four of the most progressive young members of Congress.
Today, other Democratic representatives in the House are stepping forward: moderates. You could call them “The Mod Squad”—the likes of Sharice Davids, Abigail Spanberger, Lisa Blunt Rochester and Boyle. Whether owing to their close relationships with the president, or their dedication to passable legislation, these are lawmakers positioned to influence Biden’s Washington.
Davids might be the brightest congressional star you’ve yet to notice.
The 40-year-old might not have been chosen for a cabinet position like a fellow trailblazing Native American congresswoman, Deb Haaland. She doesn’t have 12 million Twitter followers like Ocasio-Cortez. But less than 50 days into Biden’s first term, the representative for Kansas’ 3rd District was sitting in the Oval Office, conferring with the new president.
Born in Germany to a single mother who was a drill sergeant in the U.S. Army, Davids ended up back in the States for high school in Leavenworth, Kansas. She worked at a Sonic Drive-In and a Marriott hotel among other jobs to help pay her way, attending a community college, and later Cornell for a law degree, before a White House fellowship during Barack Obama’s presidency. The first in her family to graduate with a degree, Davids is also the first of two Native American women to serve in Congress, and the first openly gay Kansan elected to national office.
Davids’ understated demeanor contrasts with her past in mixed martial arts. She began competing as an amateur in 2006, winning five of six bouts, including two knockouts, then fought twice as a pro. When she failed to be selected for an Ultimate Fighting Championship reality-TV show, Davids shifted her focus to social work, and eventually politics. Yet her martial-arts background still touches every aspect of her life, she says, from the discipline needed to head a congressional office to the confidence to deliver a major speech.
“She essentially had to battle and fight all the way to that point in her life to win a seat in the Congress,” said Marlon WhiteEagle, president of the Ho-Chunk Nation, of which Davids is a member.
To secure her first term, Davids won a six-way Democratic primary, which included a candidate who was a former Sanders staffer endorsed by Ocasio-Cortez. She narrowly prevailed, then overwhelmed two successive Republicans in a competitive swing district—results that have made her a favorite among party leaders.
Party leaders also appreciate her calm style, and handed her two promotions in just her second term: vice chairmanships in both the centrist New Democrat Coalition and the influential Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. It was the latter position that placed her across from Biden at the White House on March 4. She will play a key role in crafting and selling one of Biden’s top priorities this year, a sweeping infrastructure investment bill.
Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, a Democrat who represents a Kansas City district on the other side of the Missouri River from Davids’, said she is known to read every word of every bill that comes up for a vote. “She’s not coming home and calling press conferences and making big declarations, saying things that are caustic, but which will get her a lot of coverage,” he explained. “But I would hate for somebody to get the impression that, because she’s not trying to get publicity, she is somehow a pushover. That would be a really bad mistake.”
To Davids, being a team player doesn’t necessarily mean voting as the leadership prefers, or as party orthodoxy demands. She has shown little taste for bills that lack a tangible pathway to success, and recently refused to vote for early iterations of pandemic relief bills that she deemed impracticably partisan. She also declined to endorse the Green New Deal but, as a self-proclaimed “infrastructure nerd,” seeks to tackle both the climate crisis and job creation in the infrastructure bill—in ways that can pass both chambers of Congress.
“We don’t put politics ahead of what’s good for our country,” Davids asserted in a recent Zoom press conference. “We’re focused on finding innovative solutions, and actually getting stuff done.”
On the morning of January 6, most of Washington was unaware of the gathering threat outside the walls of the Capitol Building. But not Spanberger. The former undercover CIA officer had spent time overseas on classified counterterrorism operations; she recognized that something was up.
That morning, she told other lawmakers to dress down, and instructed her staff to stay home. As the mob breached the House chamber, she advised members of Congress to take off the lapel pins identifying them as lawmakers, and retreated with her colleagues from the chamber balcony to a safe room.
This was the type of scenario she had practiced at the CIA—though she’d always imagined such an event taking place abroad. “It was not any sort of experience or training set that I thought I’d be applying to my work at the United States Capitol,” she said in an interview.
Wry and deliberate, the 41-year-old Spanberger admits that she can be impatient with inefficient aspects of party politics: the posturing, the bloviation, the messaging tactics. Luckily for her, she entered Congress in 2019 with other like-minded lawmakers who share national-security backgrounds and a distaste for artifice, such as representatives Chrissy Houlahan, Elaine Luria, Mikie Sherrill and Elissa Slotkin. This clique is now so close, they have a running text-message thread, and chose offices near to one another in the Capitol complex.
“When meetings run late all the time, I know who is going to share my consternation,” Spanberger joked. “Even just some of the niceties of Congress, where you’re supposed to be very gracious, and [thank] the 20 people who spoke before you … I’m trying to get used to it.”
Spanberger has applied her low threshold for nonsense influentially in her short time in Congress. The first impeachment of President Donald Trump might not have moved ahead had she and her clique not written an open letter calling his use of the presidency to lean on a foreign leader for political gain an affront to their national service.
She has also urged Democrats to her left to quit with counterproductive sloganeering such as “Defund the Police,” which she believes contributed to congressional electoral losses—a point she made in an impassioned post-election conference call, chiding progressives.
Ryan Clancy—chief strategist for No Labels, a group that advocates centrist governance—was not surprised that Spanberger spoke up on that call. Those in the Progressive Caucus, he said, are often taken as “the fiery ones who know how to get attention; they’re the ones who have the passion and fight. And then the people in between that, they’re, like, mushy,” he said. “She’s not like that at all. If she feels strongly about something, she will fight for it.”
Spanberger’s efforts to push her party to the center led to her role as vice chair of the Problem Solvers Caucus, a bipartisan group of moderate lawmakers including many of the senators who cast deciding votes on critical legislation. The 50/50 split in the Senate means that House legislation may struggle for passage if not sufficiently bipartisan. Therefore Democratic leaders will need to work the political center, making the Problem Solvers Caucus especially significant.
“The ‘How can we get to yes?’ conversation is not one that every lawmaker likes to have,” Spanberger conceded. “That will be the role of the organization: When other people want to walk away from the table, find reasons to bring people back.”
Lisa Blunt Rochester
Blunt Rochester was steps from Spanberger on the House balcony during the Capitol attack. After evacuating, she was relieved—only to find herself endangered again, this time by Republican lawmakers who refused to wear Covid masks while locked in a secured room.
Blunt Rochester did not hector them. She did not tweet about it. She approached them with spare masks, and calmly suggested they use them—a moment captured in a video that went viral. To people who know her best, this was Lisa being Lisa: reaching across the aisle with an outstretched hand not a clenched fist.
The first woman and the first African American to represent Delaware in Congress, the 59-year-old uses her deep connections in the halls of power to advocate for those who don’t have such connections. She was raised in Wilmington’s majority-black Ninth Ward, and has made civil rights a focus of her career, investigating the police for racial and sexual discrimination while she was in state government, and leading an influential civil rights organization. With her campaign tagline, “When Lisa goes to Washington, we all go to Washington,” she has won over a broad coalition of supporters in the state, from industry to activists.
Blunt Rochester has long been part of Biden’s inner circle. Her father is close with the president; her sister used to work for him. Blunt Rochester herself was on Biden’s vice-presidential selection committee, and co-chaired his inauguration committee.
Blunt Rochester recalls how, after the George Floyd killing, she phoned her old family friend, bemoaning Trump’s vitriol and the lack of leadership during such unrest. “Well,” Biden responded, “let’s get in a car, and let’s go to the city, and let’s talk to people.”
Now that he is president, Blunt Rochester will try to be that voice of conscience in his ear whenever possible. “My middle name is Blunt,” she said in an interview. “He knows that I will give it to him as honestly and truthfully as I see it.”
She is also committed to working across the aisle. Blunt Rochester led a bipartisan civility pledge among her freshman congressional class, recently co-sponsored direct-payment legislation with a West Virginia Republican, and she co-founded a bipartisan Future of Work Caucus.
“Wanting a strong economy and believing in justice aren’t mutually exclusive,” she said.
A year before stumping for candidate Biden in the snow, Boyle took another consequential trip on a cold day—this one across his hometown of Philadelphia to meet Biden in person. Conventional wisdom back in November 2018 was that only a progressive like Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren could build a left-of-center coalition to vanquish Trump. But Boyle wasn’t buying that.
“If you didn’t run, and Trump was re-elected,” Boyle recalled telling Biden, “I would never forgive myself if I didn’t come over and say this.”
It was a bet that showed shrewd political instincts: Now he’s in with a sitting president. Biden hired Boyle’s top aide for a high-ranking administration staff post, and many think Boyle could one day serve in the administration.
The baby-faced 44-year-old grew up an Irish-Catholic kid amid brick-and-siding townhouses in the working-class Philadelphia suburbs. The son of an Irish immigrant father who worked as a janitor, and a mother who worked as a school crossing guard, Boyle was the first in his family to attend college.
He also grew up among the other-half politically. Boyle was the first Democrat to represent his area in the state legislature. Although his home ward voted for Trump, his congressional district writ large is a surefire Democratic seat. His connection to the area helped him win as an underdog against the elites in a 2014 primary there by out-hustling Chelsea Clinton’s mother-in-law, ex-Rep. Marjorie Margolies, despite her superior fundraising and endorsements from Bill and Hillary Clinton.
Boyle isn’t only a Biden supporter. He’s also a legislator in Biden’s image, with a preference for bringing people together. And he may have the right blend of backslapping and strategic thinking to succeed. “We need, I think, more people in the caucus who tend to be a bridge,” Boyle said. “It will be a disaster for House Democrats if we were to become siloed.”
Boyle has married his economic populism with the defense and foreign policy preferences of an old-school Democrat, at a time when protectionism and isolationism have become dominant strains in both parties. The only sitting congressman born to an Irish parent, he has supported increased Irish immigration and citizenship for undocumented Irish migrants amid his party’s larger efforts for reform that allows a pathway to citizenship. He has particular concern with mitigating the negative effects of Brexit by leaning on the British government to protect the Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to Northern Ireland. Boyle has also worked across the aisle with Rep. Adam Kinzinger to maintain a U.S. presence in Syria.
“Having a father and maternal grandparents who are born elsewhere, those naturally make you more interested in the rest of the world,” he said.
Boyle’s politics float somewhere between the Progressive Caucus and the centrist New Democrat Coalition—both groups count him as a member. Among the first bills he has introduced this year is a wealth tax on those worth more than $50 million, co-sponsored with Warren, who made the idea a centerpiece of her presidential bid, and Rep. Pramila Jayapal, a progressive leader who Boyle says is one of his best friends.
Yet his support for policies like this isn’t just about bridging factions within the Democratic Party—or keeping progressives in his district happy. As a co-founder of the Congressional Blue Collar Caucus, Boyle aims to rebuild connections between Democrats and the working-class voters they have long lost.
A wealth tax may sound like populist catnip, but Boyle sees it as a fundamentally blue-collar policy, raising revenue after massive pandemic aid spending without breaking Biden’s promise never to tax the middle class. Also, couching reformist policies as blue-collar could win back some of the voters who traditionally voted Democratic, but have drifted to the Republican side, alienated by Democratic politics.
“I completely understand and get where our party is standing right now among working-class white voters,” he said. “It would really help us push against the perception that’s out there that we’re elitists.”
Not since President Barack Obama’s first term have moderate Democrats had this level of agenda-driving influence. Now, in a Washington headed by a deal-making Democrat—in which the Republican Party is divided and rudderless after the Capitol attack marginalized its leader—moderates will not only be influential. They will be critical to making politics work.
Some moderates like Davids will work behind the scenes to craft passable, nuanced legislation. Others like Spanberger will fight to keep Democratic messaging free of hyperbole, while allowing some Republicans to join the legislative process. Lawmakers like Blunt Rochester and Boyle will use their connections to the president to advocate for a politics that is responsive to all segments of the Democratic coalition.
This Mod Squad won’t necessarily be hanging out together and posing for photo shoots. They may not appear side-by-side at rallies. But together, they represent elements of the Democratic Caucus that are sure to hold massive influence in coming years.
“Despite the ever-shrinking center of American politics, thankfully both chambers still have members with real incentives to break deadlocks and push for compromise,” said Ryan Nickel, a former congressional staffer who now works as a Democratic strategist at a private firm.
“In a news environment where Trump can’t suck all the air out of the room via tweet,” he added, “it’ll be easier for these lawmakers to break through the noise.”
Daniel Newhauser is a freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Daily Beast, Politico and VICE, among other publications.