The Only Democrat Running to Challenge Trump on National Security

Representative Seth Moulton of Massachusetts is a long-shot contender, having led a failed attempt to block Nancy Pelosi as speaker.

Representative Seth Moulton of Massachusetts (Charlie Neibergall / Associated Press)

Democrats running for president have been so busy talking about how they’d change the country that they’ve barely talked about protecting it.

They’re campaigning in Iowa and New Hampshire on health care and climate change. Reparations have become an issue. Meanwhile, the Afghan War is in its 18th year, President Donald Trump has gone from withdrawing U.S. forces in Syria to maybe changing his mind, and North Korea now seems to have been rebuilding a long-range missile site in the days before, or immediately after, Trump’s failed Hanoi summit with Kim Jong Un.

The most that the Democratic presidential candidates tend to say about national security involves condemnation of Russia for hacking the 2016 election or broad comments about restoring America’s standing in the world.

Representative Seth Moulton of Massachusetts sees an opening.

Some of the Democratic presidential candidates are running to the left. Some are running down the middle. Moulton told me he will run through VFW halls and college campuses, leaning in on a national-security focus which, even in a field this huge, he is all alone in focusing on—a stance that not only differentiates him, but could eventually draw the others out on foreign affairs.

Moulton is clearly a long shot, best known at this point for his failed attempt to block Nancy Pelosi as speaker, which angered liberals across the country and back home in Massachusetts. But his calculus—and that of other more moderate, less well-known candidates—is that the party is veering too far left for its own good in an election against Trump.

Before he first won his House seat, in 2014, Moulton was a Marine who served four tours in Iraq and was awarded the Bronze Star.

His next stop is South Carolina. Then Iowa. Then Nevada. And back and forth often to New Hampshire, which is only about a 45-minute drive from his condo in Salem.

He knows people will dismiss his chances, but he remembers being 53 points down in the first poll in his primary against a nine-term congressman. A win was “statistically impossible,” he said his pollster told him, a few months before he won.

Moulton likes to make a point of saying that he doesn’t tell war stories. Somewhat famously, he never mentioned the medals he won until The Boston Globe reported on them, long after he won his 2014 primary. But he makes having been at war, and in command of a platoon in combat, a constant part of the story he tells, and how he thinks about getting into 2020.

“I think Donald Trump is a lot harder to beat than most Democrats think. But I’m also quietly confident that I can beat him, and I don’t think it’ll be the hardest thing that I do in my life,” he said.

Moulton has been worried for years that people haven’t been paying attention to how much of an immediate threat Trump is, ever since he and other members of the House Armed Services Committee took a flight on the so-called Doomsday Plane in early 2017, a few months after the inauguration.

The Cold War has been over for 28 years, but it’s still the plan to have the president and top officials wait out the mushroom clouds from the air in the event of nuclear war, leading the response for whatever is left of America.

Air Force officials showed off the technology. Moulton says much of it looked left over from the 1950s. They stressed all the ways that they couldn’t be hacked. He can’t discuss the details, but they walked the committee members through what Moulton calls “a frighteningly realistic” scenario of events,  and how quickly they could escalate into missiles being launched.

“The system’s basically foolproof,” he recalled one of his older House colleagues saying to him.

After he told me the story, he finished with this line: “I said to myself, Unless the guy at the top is a fool.”

Moulton named the group he created to promote Democratic veterans for House races the Serve America PAC. The name is meant to reflect the mentality of a Harvard undergrad from a nonmilitary family who enlisted after staring at the names on a memorial wall in the campus chapel and talks about running for president as the continuation of his service.

Moulton has set his timeline for making a final decision at two months, by about May. He hasn’t started fundraising or hiring a staff. But he’s acting as if he has already entered the race. On March 19 and 20, he’ll be in South Carolina, joining former state Representative James Smith, another veteran, whom Moulton endorsed in his race for governor last year. He will also attend an event sponsored by college Democrats at the University of South Carolina, and he has plans to visit the other early-primary states by the end of April.

He started with a speech at the Brookings Institution, using the D.C. think tank as a forum to lay out his national-security ideas as policy rather than politics, although stirring up 2020 talk among serious-minded Democrats was the point.

“It’s time to completely reimagine our arms, our alliances, and our arms control for this new and rapidly changing world,” Moulton said, making his case to me. Moulton sees Trump’s terrible national-security record as an opportunity that Democrats need to take to completely change up their own ossified conventional wisdom. Don’t pull out of NATO, and don’t use every chance to destroy relationships with European leaders, Moulton said, but rethink how best to engage with NATO. He doesn’t think Trump deserves any credit for shaking things up with NATO and America’s European allies.

Joe Biden, who has already made clear that foreign policy would be central to his campaign if it happens, voted for the Iraq War. As much as he’s worked to build up his relationship with the former vice president, Moulton talks about how the time has come for the generation that fought the wars to take over from the generation that started them.

For all the attention to 2020 Democrats in their 60s and 70s currently leading the primary polls, Moulton’s entry would begin to crowd the 40-and-under category, with South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii already in the race. Notably, they are the only other vets running. Representative Eric Swalwell of California has also made it clear that he is close to entering the race. Swalwell, who did not serve in the military, is two years younger than Moulton, but has been in Congress one term longer.

“I don’t think you have to be a veteran to be an effective commander in chief, but at a time when we’re in the midst of the longest war in American history, it’s a perspective that is valuable in our politics,” Moulton said.

We were sitting around a conference table in the shared workspace he uses for his PAC headquarters when I asked him whether conditions in North Korea, Afghanistan, and Syria, based on the classified intelligence he is seeing, are better or worse than the public realizes. They’re worse, Moulton said.

“There are two things that happen when you go into a classified briefing. You either realize … we can figure it out or …Whoa, the situation’s much worse than anyone realizes. Under the Trump presidency, my experience has been much more the latter than the former,” he said.

He blamed the Trump dysfunction on what he says is a combination of dishonesty and incompetence.

Moulton said he sees the same tendencies in some of the Democrats whom he’s hoping to tangle with on the debate stage.

“Candidates are running on a message of division, just like Trump did. It’s not as bad. It’s not as immoral. But I hear divisiveness in a lot of the other campaigns,” he said. To him, that includes the Green New Deal—he supports an aggressive approach to climate change, but he thinks a collection of estimates and aspirations only hurts the cause. Moulton said he’s working on a version of his own, drawn more deeply from conversations with experts.

“I think we want to be careful that we don’t become hypocrites and start ignoring science, just like the right has been doing,” he said.

Similar thinking informs his take on Medicare for all. He’s been receiving care from a single-payer system—at VA hospitals—and doesn’t think that’s the answer.

Last year, Moulton campaigned for Democratic veterans running for House seats. He wasn’t the only one backing them, but their victories had much more to do with Democrats retaking the majority than can be claimed by the Justice Democrats or any of the other left-leaning groups. Along the way, Moulton raised more than $7 million, more than any House Democrat outside the leadership, and built up an email list of eager fans.

Nonetheless, his reputation in Washington is defined largely by his attempt to knock out Pelosi. He began 2018 by plotting against her, and getting attacked for drawing attention to himself. The year ended with him holding out against her for speaker. Pelosi will never forgive him, and neither will many people close to her. They dismiss what he and others did as a fumbled effort that only served to dredge up anger and division. How will he run a presidential campaign, they snicker, when he couldn’t even keep a few dozen colleagues together in opposing her?

Moulton argues that getting Pelosi to agree, as a way of ending his insurgency, to term limits that would only let her serve as speaker for four more years did more to change Democratic power in Washington than can be claimed by nearly anyone else in town.

The Pelosi fight has followed him, from raucous town halls in Massachusetts to liberals around the country swearing revenge for how he’d taken on the Democratic Party’s most significant female leader. Several people have reached out to John Tierney, the congressman whom Moulton beat in the 2014 primary, asking for advice about running against Moulton, though so far the agitation has remained just talk. No one has put together money to pay for a poll to see whether the backlash has dissipated, let alone for the beginnings of an actual campaign.

Moulton said that for now, he’s not giving up his House seat to nose around on 2020, even as some of his critics in the district salivate over beating him up for ignoring his constituents to chase national politics.

“I got here via primary, and that’s part of the Democratic process, so I welcome it,” Moulton said. “I wouldn’t be surprised.”

Plus, he said, his stand against Pelosi is a perfect demonstration of how willing he is to take on the establishment, in a way that makes much more sense to people around the country, particularly in swing districts, than to liberals and the people in power in Washington.