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WASHINGTON — Seth Moulton may be polling at zero percent, but the unlikely contender for the Democratic nomination isn’t giving up.
The Massachusetts congressman didn’t qualify for either of the first two debates, is getting teased in the Onion and is fending off rumors that he’s losing staff. But at the American Legion post on Capitol Hill one night late last month, Moulton appeared to be recognized the moment he came through the door.
Moulton drew a crowd in the backroom bar of the veterans’ club as he grabbed a beer. A small group rushed up to chat and asked for pictures as he sipped a Shiner Bock and a country cover band played in the background. After meeting Moulton, a pair of women confessed they weren’t sure who they’d just posed with. They just knew Moulton was in politics. He has that look: thick hair, square jaw, fixed gaze.
Two uniformed Marines also snapped a shot with Moulton — but they knew who he was.
“He’s a Marine,” one of the men said.
“He knows what we go through,” the other added.
Moulton, a Marine Corps captain who served in Iraq, is making a long-shot presidential bid focused on national security, an issue that is taking a back seat in a primary focused on issues like health insurance, immigration and student debt. In May, he unveiled a plan to expand military mental health services while revealing his own experience suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder.
Over a beer at the American Legion post, Moulton shared his thoughts on national security and how the topic “barely even came up” in the first two nights of primary debates. Other than passing references, Iraq was mentioned only when former Vice President Joe Biden was questioned about his past support for the war. Syria came up only once in the second round of debates, when former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke rattled off a list of places from which he said he would withdraw troops.
Moulton is frustrated there hasn’t been more conversation about national security in the presidential primary. “The Democratic Party is failing to have a clear national security strategy. We’ve got to show America how we will make our country strong and safe. How we will stand up for patriotism, for our values. We’ve got to stop letting conservative Republicans own the flag,” he said.
With his campaign barely registering in the polls, Moulton wasn’t on any of the debate stages to make this case. Barring an unprecedented upheaval in the race, Moulton won’t be the Democratic presidential nominee. So what is he doing?
At multiple points in the conversation, unprompted, Moulton brought up his efforts to help other veterans win seats in Congress. Moulton is clearly passionate about both seeing national security stay at the forefront of the national conversation and having the voices of his fellow veterans involved in that discourse. His campaign is a chance to do that. And, of course, running for president could also be a springboard to something else for the congressman.
One source close to Moulton said they would hope his focus on national security issues and foreign policy has caused some of the other candidates to take notice of Moulton. With his platform and military experience, the source said, Moulton would be a “natural” choice for a few Cabinet-level positions in another Democrat’s White House, including secretary of state, defense or veterans affairs and ambassador to the United Nations. Moulton, who is 40 years old, is one of the younger candidates, and the source said that could also make him an appealing running mate.
Moulton’s national-security-focused campaign could be seen as something of a personal passion project designed to elevate both his stature and an issue he genuinely cares about. But Moulton also argued the issue provides a path for Democrats to defeat President Trump. He describes national security as the area where Trump is “weakest” and seems eager for other candidates to share his focus on the issue.
“The single thing the commander in chief has the most influence over is keeping us safe. We can talk about health care and health care is a big issue in this race. ... Climate should be an even bigger issue, but at the end of the day, you can’t do much as the president without Congress,” said Moulton. “National security decisions happen every single day in the White House.”
Tim Murtaugh, the Trump campaign’s communications director, cited Moulton’s polling numbers to brush off the former Marine’s criticisms of the president.
“President Trump has the United States leading on the world stage again and is putting American interests first,” Murtaugh wrote in an email. “Seth Moulton doesn’t have to worry about it because he will never be president.”
Prior to launching his White House bid, Moulton was perhaps best known as an especially vocal critic of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Last year he spearheaded a failed effort to oust the speaker and other Democratic House leadership. Moulton’s coup failed to gain much traction and was criticized as a group of “white guys” trying to take out the first female speaker of the House. Moulton bristled at this critique and pointed to the fact that Rep. Linda Sánchez, D-Calif., the highest-ranking Latina in the House, also called for new leaders for the Democratic caucus. Additionally, he noted men make up the majority of the House Democrats’ leadership.
“My complaint back then wasn’t about ideology. Certainly wasn’t about gender. ... But it was about leadership,” Moulton said.
Moulton turned back to his military experience to explain his dissatisfaction with Pelosi. He is part of the growing number of Democrats who have challenged the speaker by calling for impeachment. Moulton also said he didn’t agree with Pelosi’s handling of her disagreements with the progressive and diverse group of freshman congresswomen known as “the Squad.”
When it comes to a Moulton doctrine for national security, he says the United States should “win wars without fighting them.” He offered the broad strokes of his strategies for current military operations in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, which involve a mix of diplomacy and gradual drawdowns.
In Iraq, Moulton said he would reduce the number of U.S. troops on the ground and “significantly increase our diplomatic presence in Iraq to help mentor their new government.” In Syria, Moulton wants to focus on supporting the rebel troops the U.S. has trained in parts of the country not controlled by the Assad regime while being “involved diplomatically in negotiations for the rest of the country.”
“Other than that, we’d pull out,” Moulton said of Syria.
The current U.S. troop deployments in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Africa are all under the umbrella of the congressional authorization for military force that was granted to President George W. Bush at the start of the war on terror. Moulton believes there should be a new congressional debate about America’s military presence in Africa.
“I think counterterrorism is important in Africa, but the American people don’t even know that it’s going on,” said Moulton. “We have to have a separate authorization for the use of military force for Africa that’s very clear about what our mission is, what our goals are and what kinds of troop deployments are allowed.”
But faced with limited support in the polls, it’s unclear whether Moulton’s vision will ever translate into policy. Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper dropped out of the race on Thursday and said he would focus on his home state’s Senate race. Hickenlooper’s move increased pressure on other long-shot candidates to drop out, but for now Moulton is continuing with a robust campaign schedule, with multiple events in New Hampshire, a key early primary state, this weekend.
Moulton insists he just hasn’t “been in front of enough people.”
He scored an upset on his way to Congress and seems confident one viral moment or major headline could catapult him to the front of the pack. Still, Moulton’s insistence that his “aim is to be the next president of the United States” has an air of improbability.
“I recognize that I’m an underdog,” he said. “The good thing is, America loves an underdog.”
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