vision 2020

A Long Talk With Seth Moulton

Seth Moulton campaigning in New Hampshire. Photo: Scott Eisen/Getty Images

Seth Moulton, the Massachusetts congressman who’s best known for trying to topple Nancy Pelosi after the 2018 midterms, is insisting that voters are over that, and that the pair of Bostonians who just greeted him are atypical. We’re sitting in a loud sandwich shop near the statehouse, and a woman has just stopped by our table to wish him luck in his long-shot presidential run, while the man at her side looks more skeptical, because, he tells Moulton, “I like Nancy Pelosi!” Moulton, of course, is not running a presidential campaign about the Speaker of the House. He’s trying to put national security front and center, after successfully working with a wide range of fellow veteran candidates in the 2018 midterms. “If someone asks about health care, I talk about how I’m the only candidate in this race who has single-payer health care, and what that means,” he tells me, referring to the Veterans Affairs system. For Moulton, like almost everyone else in the race, the hard part will be breaking through in the 20-something person field. But his task is also to establish a national profile apart from his Pelosi experience. “National security resonates. It tends to be an issue that comes to the forefront as these campaigns go on, and people think about who we actually want as a commander-in-chief,” he says. “I think Trump is weakest in his job as commander-in-chief, so we have to be willing to take him on in that role.”

I’ve heard you say, repeatedly, that you’re fairly certain Trump won’t be as easy to beat as a lot of Democrats assume. What do you mean when you say that? Why do you think your fellow Democrats believe he’ll be easy to beat, and why will it be harder?
I believe they think that because I hear a lot of fellow Democrats saying that. But when you get to parts of the country where we need to win votes, the places that voted for Obama and then voted for Trump, there’s a lot more support for the president than people in places like Boston and San Francisco realize. And there’s also some certain anxiety with Democrats becoming socialists. And I hear this from voters. So it’s important that we choose a strong nominee that can go up against Trump, and it’s important that we recognize that these voters — the people who carried us to victory in the midterms — are the people we need to reach. And they’re the people that voted for folks like Mikie Sherrill in New Jersey and Elissa Slotkin in Michigan. They voted for Conor Lamb. Conor only invited four Democrats to come campaign for him. Amy McGrath, down in Kentucky, only invited two. And you’ve got to pay attention to how we won the midterms. I supported candidates who were willing to put the country first, before the party, and of the 40 seats we flipped to take back the House, 21 of them were supported by [my] Serve America [PAC]. You know, I’d put that record up against anyone else.

So do you think it’s just that your party hasn’t learned the right lessons from 2018?
Well, we’re an incredibly diverse party and that diversity is a strength. So I think it’s wonderful that we have voices on the left and in the middle. If we’re the majority party, we oughta have the majority of viewpoints. But we just have to be careful in this election, because the president is more popular than we like to believe. For me, I could just step back for a second about how I got into this, you know, I wouldn’t be here if not for my time in the Marines, I wouldn’t even be in politics, if not for my time in the Marines. You know, I made the decision to serve because of this amazing mentor I had in my college church who talked about the importance of service. I decided to join before 9/11 but then got swept up in the war. I didn’t expect to go to Iraq, but when I was in Iraq, I felt like I saw some of the best of America. It was America from all over this country. Those are some of my closest friends and some of the people I keep in touch with most regularly, the guys I served with. And even among those veterans, they recognize the president lies, they recognize that he’s untrustworthy, they even recognize that he dodged the draft to get out of serving. But the anxiety that they have with a lot of Democrats is why some of them can support him.

So you hear this when you spend time with a diverse group of Americans from all across the country. And I think that’s important for us to realize as Democrats. If we want to be the majority party, it’s important for us to represent the majority of Americans. It doesn’t mean compromising on our values, it doesn’t mean giving in on moral issues. But it does mean listening to voters from all across this country and working to bridge divides, not deepen them. And I think there is a difference. I think there are candidates in this race who are trying to deepen those divides, and there are candidates who are trying to bridge them. I’m very much trying to bridge them.

Let’s talk about Pelosi. Are there any lessons from your attempt to defeat her that you’ve internalized and are taking into this campaign?
I think there are a lot of lessons. First is that Twitter does not represent America and it does not represent the Democratic Party. And there are a lot of places in the country where people are thrilled that I was willing to stand up against the Establishment. Especially the parts of the country that we need to win in this election.

But then does the Democratic caucus in the House also not represent the country? You’re saying these parts of the country did support you, but obviously the overall push to replace Pelosi didn’t work …
Well, look, here’s the thing. In terms of working? This was always a fight against leadership, the top three. And yes, we didn’t get them out, but we got a deal on term limits, we got a voting rights subcommittee, a climate change subcommittee, and we made some significant change. That’s what we need. You know, I don’t have a problem with Nancy Pelosi as a person. I think she’s a strong leader and she’s been good at standing up to Trump, but I want this new generation to lead, and I don’t just talk about a new generation of leadership, I fight for it. And I realize that there are a lot of people who are all talk and no fight. One of the lessons I learned is that Washington is not the Marine Corps. People who say they’re with you are not always with you. That’s okay. That’s a lesson. But the most important thing to know about me is I’m somebody who does stick to my principles. Speaker Pelosi and I have a fine relationship. There’s a healthy respect outside of the Twittersphere for people who do stand on principle and fight for what they believe in. I spent two years helping this extraordinary group of next-generation leaders get elected to Congress. I’m not gonna just say, “Okay, well now they shouldn’t have a voice in anything that we do.”

One of the reasons your generational argument against Democratic leadership is interesting to me now is that this race, obviously, has some similar dynamics: The two front runners on the Democratic side are in their mid-to-late 70s, and obviously Trump is, too. Did the attempt to make that argument against Pelosi and her team teach you anything about how to make it now?
The reason I think it’s time for a new generation of leadership in our politics is because we have a new generation of problems and challenges. It’s not just that I always think about young people ruling the world. I just think that when the economy is changing faster than it ever has before, we need people who understand these changes. When our national security situation is generationally different even than it was 20 years ago, we need new thinking. One of the things I think I learned from this fight is you have to explain to people why you’re doing this. And explain the problems that we need to solve.

One of my favorite quotes is from a Marine in my first platoon — he’s a good friend of mine. We were talking about the future of work and the changing economy. He said, “The problem is that all the people in Washington trying to figure this out are the same folks who had 12 A.M. flashing on their VCRs for 30 years.” And when I use that line, there are a lot of people in my parents’ generation who nod their heads and they’re like, “Yeah, that’s true.” And I remember the Christmas when my brother and sister and I pooled our money and bought them a DVD player. And they remember that too. And the point is it’s time for our generation to step up and lead, because we do have a better chance at solving these problems. You know, we understand what it means to have a planet with an expiration date. We understand what it means to have an automated economy. We understand what it means to have to succeed in the tech world, and why we should be leading the tech revolution. These are things that I think my generation gets.

Okay, but when you think of ideas or policies that are closely associated with this new generation of leaders, what often comes up is something like the Green New Deal, with which you have problems. So do you not see a clash in …
I don’t think it’s clashing, I think it’s a healthy debate. I was one of the first people to sign onto the Green New Deal as a framework because climate change is just that important. It must be a top priority. But I’m also one of the only people in this race with a background in science. And I understand numbers. And we need to make this work. Promising everyone a socialist jobs plan and bankrupting the government in the process is not the way to deal with climate change. The way to deal with climate change is to address climate change while also growing our economy. Making sure that we are the leader in technology, so we’re sending those technologies to the rest of the world, including China. That is the kind of leadership that we need, not only to address climate change and grow our economy, but to have a chance of doing either.

This sounds sort of familiar in some respects to your usual answer on Medicare for All, no? That it’s just not practical to make the switch to that system yet, given your own experiences with single-payer at the VA?
Medicare doesn’t negotiate drug prices. And that’s just one problem. You can make a long list of things that Medicare doesn’t do well. We can’t just force everybody into a system that will bankrupt the government. And then, by the way, the political backlash. Either it just won’t happen or the political backlash would be so strong that you’re going to take a step backwards. People have to remember that this is an application process for president of the United States. But there’s still a Congress, and you still have to work through Congress to get laws passed. And if we just play to our base, we’re not only gonna lose the election, but even if we were to win, we’re not gonna be able to get it done. So let’s talk about a health-care system that actually works for the majority of Americans who want to keep their plans, who want some competition in the system, who want prescription drug prices to go down. By the way, it’s not a crazy concept, it’s just free-market competition, and it’s what Germany and Switzerland do. Like, it’s not crazy.

Well if we’re talking about factoring in potential political backlash, what do you make of the argument made by a lot of Democrats now that you just can’t make political plans based on what Republicans might do?
I’m all for aspiration. I’m talking about aspirational things, but not unrealistic things. Because my experiences of what voters want is to get things done. And I’ve seen that in my few years as a congressman. It’s all well and good to give historic speeches, but voters want us to get things done. Washington is broken. It’s not getting anything done; we have all these problems and we’re not getting them solved. Some of my greatest successes as a congressman are just getting things done for the district. If someone comes into my office and says they’re having trouble getting health care, I don’t sit back and say, “Oh, well I’m just dreaming of a Medicare for All system, you’ll have to wait ’til I get elected president to realize that dream.” No, we help ’em with their goddamn health care. That’s what this is about. It’s getting to work for the people and actually producing results. So one of the aspirational things I talk about is fusion power, and that’s hugely aspirational. But I didn’t start talking about it until I spent a lot of time at MIT working with scientists to understand: Is this achievable or not? And I believe it is, and I believe America should win the race to develop fusion technology so that we’re selling it to China, not the other way around.

The thing you’re talking about more than others in the race right now is foreign policy, national security. Is it that you want to distinguish yourself as the person talking about this most, or do you think of this as a chance to highlight where you actually diverge from mainstream Democratic orthodoxy on foreign policy?
We do need to totally rethink our national security strategy. That means a new generation of arms, arms control, and alliances. That’s how I usually break it down. But the world is changing, you know, dramatically. China has made a commitment to being the world leader in artificial intelligence. That’s an economic threat, and a military threat. We gotta match that. Russia is not sending tanks, they’re attacking us through the internet, and they’re doing it every single day. And NATO has not been updated to acknowledge that threat. So we need to invest in a totally new set of arms. That means divesting us of old ones to save a lot of money. We need to invest in a whole new set of arms control measures. I mean, we should be talking about arms control for artificial intelligence before we have robots going around and killing. And we should lead on that, and our alliances need to be updated for this totally new world as well. So NATO needs to be modernized to meet the threat of Russia attacking through the internet, and we need to seriously look at a Pacific NATO to contain China and North Korea, which weren’t concerns at all when the original NATO was established.

Okay, but when you’re out on the campaign trail — say, at a town hall — you, and everyone, primarily get questions about domestic issues. How are you thinking about getting people animated by this?
The interesting thing I’ve noticed is that people ask a lot of national security questions once they realize they’ve got someone who can talk about national security. Because national security issues are fundamental to our place in the world, to our economic security. I mean, immigration is a national security issue. A way to stop this historic surge of migrants from Central America is with foreign aid. Cybersecurity is an economic security issue. People aren’t losing jobs to immigrants, but we are losing them to China, which is stealing our ideas, stealing our military secrets. That’s literally how their “innovation economy” works — by stealing our ideas. So a lot of these security issues matter to people, and I think there are also a lot of people who simply feel insecure in the sense that we have a commander-in-chief who’s reckless and dangerous, and there are Americans who worry that that New York Times alert in the middle of the night is gonna be the start of some war. We’ve got the president saber-rattling on Venezuela just this week.

A lot of your political work has been focused around recruiting, working with veteran candidates. You’re not the only veteran in this presidential race — Pete Buttigieg and Tulsi Gabbard also served — but you’re making some of these national security issues much more front and center in this race than the others. What is it about this moment that makes you think voters might be yearning for this?
The hardest job of my life was getting this incredibly diverse group of Americans, from all over the country — different religious beliefs, different political beliefs — all united behind a common mission to serve our country in a very divided time. In, literally, the midst of a war that half of us disagreed with. No one else in this race has had that experience.

You mean because you’ve led troops, and set strategy, or …
No one else has led troops in combat. And I think that that experience, that leadership experience, of bringing together Americans in a very divisive situation, and getting them to believe in our country and in our mission to make America better, that’s the kind of leadership we need for the next president of the United States in a terribly divided time.

I know you were not always supportive of the Obama administration’s decisions on the national security front, but now when you look back on those years, what sticks out as decisions you would have made differently?
I would not have pulled out of Iraq so hastily that we had to turn around and go back. The infamous red line, I would not have talked about a red line and then not done anything. I would’ve been more proactive in recognizing how bad Syria could become, and do something earlier versus sort of just waiting. I would’ve worked to do more to build alliances to strengthen NATO. For example, I think we should have fulfilled Ukraine’s request for help against Russia. So there are a lot of things I would have done differently. I was willing to talk about this, I was outspoken. I had a very good relationship with President Obama — he had my statement on the Iran deal on the front page of for like three weeks. Front page. But I was also willing to be critical, and the point is that I’m an independent thinker. That’s why when people try to put me in a box, it’s like, “Oh, are you progressive? Or moderate?” If you look at my record on gun reform or climate change, I’m very progressive. If you look at my record on the economy, I’m a capitalist. I believe in regulating capitalism, but I’m certainly not a socialist.

In the public eye, it’s Joe Biden who’s been seen as the foreign-policy-forward person in this race. He hasn’t talked about it a ton yet, but he’s the one with the most legislative and executive experience …
I think it’s time for the generation that went to Iraq and Afghanistan to replace the generation that sent us there.

To back up for a second, you keep talking about capitalism versus socialism. Are you concerned at all about Democrats falling into a Republican trap in allowing this primary to be fought along those lines?
Trump has governed by doubling down on his base. We can’t make the same mistake. He’s created the most divisive presidency in American history, and we can’t counter by using that same tactic. We’ve got to show that we’re willing to represent a much broader group of Americans. And I’m proud when I hear from veterans I served with who say, “I don’t usually vote for Democrats, but I will vote for you.” Because that doesn’t mean they agree with me on everything, but they trust me, they trust my leadership. And that’s what matters.

We now have Mitch McConnell saying “case closed” on the Mueller investigation. Presumably you don’t agree? What are the next steps you want to see in the investigation?
Everyone in Washington is talking about the politics of the Mueller investigation. I didn’t swear an oath to politics. I didn’t swear an oath to my political party. I swore an oath to the Constitution. We have a constitutional responsibility to act as a check on the executive. And to figure out why Vladimir Putin wanted Donald Trump elected president. That’s the most important conclusion — unmistakable conclusion — of the Mueller report. Every American, whether you’re Mitch McConnell or Bernie Sanders, every American should want to know why Vladimir Putin — one of the only people on Earth who could wipe out every American life within 20 minutes — wanted Donald Trump elected president. That’s a national security concern.

Okay, so what does it look like going forward? You’ve made clear — see socialism versus capitalism — you’re sensitive to the political ramifications of how touchy issues should be discussed …
Apparently not as much as I should be.

But if you were in Jerry Nadler’s shoes atop the House Judiciary Committee right now …
First of all, I thought we should have been pushing for the debate about impeachment a long time ago, I thought it was a mistake on our party’s part to wait. Kind of backed ourselves into a corner. But what we should do right now, I would focus on the most important issue for our country, which is the national security issue. And if Republicans don’t want to make America safe and strong, well then that is a political win for us. That’s where we should focus our efforts. Now, it doesn’t mean that we ignore the president’s attempts to obstruct justice. It doesn’t mean we ignore the top law enforcement official in the country lying to the United States Congress. But we should make it clear that the number-one job of the federal government is to keep us safe. And that’s where we should focus our oversight as a Congress.

So how do you think about the challenge of getting attention, with roughly 700,000 people running …
Well, wait, de Blasio’s not in yet. [Editor’s note: This interview was conducted before the mayor launched his campaign on Thursday.]

Okay, 699,999. But you’re not really engaging in the day-to-day, obvious fights with the front-runners that make cable news — you’re talking about other things, or trying to. What’s your philosophy for attacking the challenge of getting voters to pay attention?
My experience has been, on the ground, that these ideas really do resonate with people. The response is good. I’ve found there’s a lot of resonance when you get it in front of people in living rooms, in VFW halls. People do actually want to get things done. And so if I were running a race to have the best Twitter account, then I’d be acting differently. But I’m running a race to help people, fundamentally to serve people. That’s why we started this campaign doing service projects around the country: I truly, deeply believe that this is about public service. And when people see that in me and in my team and in the whole spirit of this campaign, they come along. It’s exactly what I did in 2014 — on a much smaller scale, but a very steep hill to climb. After seven months of campaigning, I was only 53 points down in my first poll. But we lived a campaign like I try to live a life: of service. And ultimately that’s what people should want in their elected officials and in their president. Somebody who is truly there to serve them.

This article has been edited and condensed from an extended conversation.

A Long Talk With Seth Moulton