WASHINGTON — “Everybody mispronounces my name,” Rep. Jake Auchincloss said. “Truly, everybody.”
The person to mispronounce his name last Wednesday happened to be President Biden, with whom Auchincloss traveled on Air Force One to Auchincloss’s native Massachusetts, where the president traveled to tout a set of new actions to address climate change. In his introduction, Biden badly mangled Auchincloss’s name (it’s aww-kin-claws, for the record) and then wondered, “Where is she?”
He is a 34-year-old Harvard graduate who served in the Marines, including in both Afghanistan and Panama, before running in 2020 for the suburban Boston congressional seat Joe Kennedy III vacated in his unsuccessful bid for the Senate. Opponents pointed to the fact that he had briefly been a Republican and had, many years before, made offensive comments on social media.
Casting himself as an “Obama-Baker” centrist (Charlie Baker is the well-liked Republican governor of Massachusetts for whom Auchincloss had worked), Auchincloss managed to emerge from an eight-candidate Democratic primary that included one opponent endorsed by progressive star Rep. Ayanna Pressley, a Bostonian. He did so by running to the center in a district famously (if not always accurately) regarded as among the most liberal in the country.
If that’s a paradox, there are others. He is Jewish, but his paternal lineage can be traced back to famous midcentury WASPs like McGeorge Bundy, one of John F. Kennedy’s infamous “best and brightest” advisers, and Louis Auchincloss, the novelist who chronicled East Coast high society from his Manhattan perch.
He is also a young Democrat willing to defend Joe Biden at a time when the president is discomfitingly unpopular with his own party, especially its spirited progressive base and younger voters. Asked earlier this week if Biden should run for a second term, the progressive Rep. Cori Bush, D-Mo., demurred. “He’s the president,” she said. “He has the right to run for a second term.”
This sort of equivocation irritates Auchincloss. “I am ready for generational change,” he told Yahoo News over a beer one recent evening at the Brig beer hall in Washington, D.C. “The answer is not to tear down Joe Biden. Joe Biden is standing in the abyss right now, at a time when our democracy is fragile. We should be focused on making him a success in the latter half of his first term.”
These efforts have taken Auchincloss to the Fox News newsroom more than a dozen times in the last year, making him one of the few Democrats to regularly venture into conservative territory. After the leak of a Supreme Court opinion that would spell the end of legal abortion in many states, Auchincloss took his case to the right. As he wrote on Facebook at the time, “I went on Fox News because we cannot let Republicans change the narrative.”
Even though the current president does not monitor cable news as obsessively as former President Donald Trump did, efforts like Auchincloss’s have often taken on a pervasively negative tone. “I’m going to defend him on MSNBC and tell the left to stop tearing him down,” Auchincloss said. “I’m going to defend him on Fox and tell the right to stop launching bad-faith attacks on him.”
For the record, he has been on MSNBC 35 times, according to his staff; he has appeared seven times on CNN. He has attracted attention in other ways, too. His staff was accused of letting several members of Stephen Colbert’s comedy production team — including a puppet known as Triumph the Insult Comic Dog — into the U.S. Capitol complex after public visit hours were over, leading to seven arrests and angry fulminations from the likes of Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who compared the intrusion to the violent insurrection at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. Auchincloss’s chief of staff was also accused of tearing down signs gracing the entrance to Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene’s congressional office. In making the accusation on the House floor, Greene mispronounced “Auchincloss” as badly as Biden.
Of the Colbert incident, a spokesman for Auchincloss said the congressman does not “condone any inappropriate activity and cannot speak to anything that occurred after hours.” He did not deny Greene’s allegation, since the incident was caught on tape.
Along with some other young Democrats, including Rep. Ro Khanna of California and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, Auchincloss represents a brand of Democratic politics that, somewhat paradoxically, advances relatively progressive policy through moderate rhetoric and attempts, however misbegotten, at bipartisanship. Impressively educated and culturally sophisticated, these Democrats want neither to be on the vanguard nor to become part of the old guard.
Auchincloss said that on the flight back to Washington, D.C., from Massachusetts, Biden spoke to the other House and Senate members on the trip informally for about half an hour. He also took a moment with Auchincloss himself. “Without missing a beat, he gave me really meaningful, insightful advice in a very tightly packaged format.”
(That was the same evening on which Biden first started to show symptoms of the coronavirus, for which he would test positive the following morning. Somehow, none of the legislators who traveled with him last Wednesday got sick.)
Although he was a City Council member in Newton, Mass., only two years ago, Auchincloss is not shy when it comes to assuming a voice for his party. “Shame on any Democrat who did not fight to keep the House or put their personal ambitions ahead of keeping the gavel blue,” he says. But he is also less abrasive than Seth Moulton, the Massachusetts representative whose bid to oust Nancy Pelosi as the Democratic leader in the House rankled other members. Later, Kennedy’s failed primary bid against incumbent Sen. Ed Markey had the same effect.
Auchincloss is the 21st most progressive member of the House, according to one analysis of voting records. But he certainly doesn’t talk like it. And as a white guy who has benefited from immense privilege and social capital — Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was a very distant relative; his father is a prominent doctor who serves as a top deputy to Dr. Anthony Fauci, and his mother is a high-profile medical executive — he may struggle to persuade progressives that he has their best interests at heart.
Auchincloss is quick to shut down talk of his own ambitions, which tends to be a sign in Washington that those ambitions are broader than can be discussed in polite society. (He did offer this reporter an opportunity to serve as his running mate in the 2032 presidential election, but the offer was made in apparent jest.)
Auchincloss brands his agenda “costs, crime and classrooms,” an alliterative trio that just happens to cover three political weak spots for the Biden administration.
He openly acknowledges that remote learning was an educational disaster, one that Republicans have capitalized on to launch a wider assault on progressive educational values, in particular when it comes to how issues of race and sexuality are taught. “Between school closures and some of the rhetoric around education in general, we need to make parents feel more like they’re involved.”
Calling himself a “law-and-order liberal,” Auchincloss criticizes progressive district attorneys who have taken on the mantle of social justice while, according to their critics, ignoring crime. “Rules matter,” he said, and so does enforcing them. “We can’t just be against ‘defund the police.’ We have to proactively go out there and recognize that crime hurts.”
Auchincloss said that higher education, housing, health care and child care should all be “darn near universally accessible.” Although he doesn’t necessarily criticize progressives focused on racial equity, his outlook dovetails with that of Ruy Teixeira, a well-regarded liberal demographer who recently left the Center for American Progress over what he described as its unhelpful preoccupation with race. “My perspective is, the single most important thing to focus on in the social system is the economic system. It’s class,” Teixeira recently told Politico.
“Some of this is about where you decide to pick fights, how you explain things to people,” Auchincloss said, noting how effective the Democrats’ messaging in health care proved in the 2018 congressional midterms, when the future of the Affordable Care Act was on the line.
“When Democrats campaign on lowering health care costs, we win elections,” Auchincloss said. He has started a political group that has doled out thousands of dollars in campaign funds to other moderate Democrats, a sure sign of an elected official on the ascent and looking to make friends. He recently hosted a fundraiser for his committee with Reps. Adam Schiff of California and Jared Golden of Maine, influential Democrats who don’t necessarily make time for first-termers from safe districts.
“We need to get away from the politics of grievance and towards the politics of opportunity,” Auchincloss said. Launching into theories of responsibility and individual liberty, he can sound almost like a conservative — or maybe just a Biden-style Democrat.