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Wednesday, December 7, 2016

BOSTON — Seth Moulton, an Iraq veteran and Democratic congressional candidate on Massachusetts’ North Shore, has done something with little precedent in political campaigning: He was caught underplaying his war record.

You read that right: An investigation by The Boston Globe found that unlike politicians who go to great lengths to puff up their military backgrounds, Moulton, as the paper’s Walter Robinson wrote, “chose not to publicly disclose that he was twice decorated for heroism until pressed by the Globe.”

It took Robinson’s reporting to discover that Moulton had won the Bronze Star and the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation medal for valor during the battles for control of Najaf and Nasiriyah.

In a telephone interview, Moulton said his reluctance reflected a “healthy disrespect” among his comrades-in-arms for boasting about citations.

“The relative few of us who really were on the front lines don’t like to talk about it and don’t like to brag about it,” he said. “I saw a lot of heroic kids who were on the front lines … and didn’t get the recognition they deserved.”

Moulton’s story is a refreshing change of pace in a midterm election campaign short on displays of either courage or reticence. Voters are unhappy with both parties and there is no driving issue, so a play-all-the-angles approach that takes whatever story is dominating the news cycle and tries to turn it into a wedge.

Nowhere has this pattern been clearer than in the rise of public worries about Ebola and the effort by Republicans to turn fear into a closing argument.

It is normal for the party that doesn’t control the White House to be critical of how the incumbent has handled a crisis. And President Obama himself, according to The New York Times, was frustrated with aspects of the government’s handling of the episode, one reason he called on Ron Klain, the Washington veteran, to coordinate the response.

But it’s something else again to stoke alarm and to set up an unrealistic policy demand as a test of “toughness.” (Yes, those quotation marks are intended to convey the cynicism involved.) Thus did many Republicans call for a travel ban from the countries affected by Ebola, even though there are no direct flights from them to the United States. This raised the prospect of grounding connecting flights from European cities, and the administration argued that the ban would encourage people to lie about their travel history, making screening for the disease much harder.

Now, Republicans have quietly conceded how problematic a travel ban would be. So they are rallying to a new tough-sounding backup position, calling for a suspension of visas for travelers from the affected countries. Trying to answer symbolic politics with practical measures, the administration on Tuesday announced that travelers from Ebola-zone countries would be required to enter the United States through one of five airports equipped for screening.

To examine the way all this has played out in the congressional contest between Moulton and Republican Rich Tisei is to see how last-minute campaign pressures can push even independent-minded candidates to find ways of gaining a slight edge or avoiding political damage.

Tisei is one of the few socially moderate Republicans on the ballot this fall. Openly gay, Tisei got married in the summer of 2013, and boycotted the state Republican convention this year to protest the party’s conservative platform. Yet like other Republicans, he jumped on the idea of “banning flights” from countries where the disease is raging and of “quarantining people before they come into the country.”

For his part, Moulton, after initially resisting the flight ban, sought to find middle ground by declaring that “until we can get people properly screened, we may need to shut those flights down.” But in the interview, he reiterated his view that “we can’t pretend that we’re going to win this fight simply by shutting ourselves off from the rest of the world.” He also endorsed Obama’s latest move on screening. And on Wednesday, Tisei’s spokesman, Charlie Szold, said his candidate did not want a flight ban to force any interruption of aid to the affected countries to combat the disease.

One would like to hope that Ebola posturing will not be decisive in either the Moulton-Tisei race or in the larger campaign. There are signs that the issue is fading as reality catches up with the pandering. In the meantime, Moulton, who knows what courage means, could usefully bring a GI’s “healthy disrespect” to the ways our country’s politics makes problem-solving harder.

E.J. Dionne’s email address is [email protected] Twitter: @EJDionne.

Screenshot: Seth Moulton and Richard Tisei debate on WBZ (Seth Moulton/YouTube)

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