Rep. Seth Moulton spoke to POLITICO Thursday as part of a series of interviews with Democrats seeking to challenge President Donald Trump in 2020.
Here are key excerpts from the hour-long conversation with the Massachusetts Democrat:
On why he’s running
"2016, I think was a wake up call for me in the way that it was a wake-up call for so many Americans. And I said, you know, it’s not enough just to do a good job for my district, I’m going to try to change Congress. And so I embarked on this Serve America initiative, where I went out and actively tried to recruit, support, mentor and campaign for a bunch of fellow veterans running in key House districts across the country…
…And that experience brought me to parts of the country that a lot of Democrats don’t go to…But these are some of the places that we need to start winning back if we’re going to not only win the White House, but win back the Senate, if we’re going to hold on to the majority that we have in the House. And so, it put me in touch with a part of America that I think a lot of Democrats don’t always see.
And that’s one of the reasons — it’s not the only reason — but it’s one of the reasons why I think that Donald Trump is going to be a lot harder to beat than most Democrats think. I think this is going to be a tough election. I hope I’m wrong. I hope that any one of the 24 of us, or 25, whatever it is, can beat him. But I’m not sure that’s the case. And that, fundamentally, is why I’m in this race. I think this is the best way that I can serve the country today. It’s the best way I can even serve my constituents back in Massachusetts today, because we’ve got to beat this president."
On his contrast with Trump
"I’m not sure there’s a better foil than a young combat veteran for a guy who dodged the war, and yet claims to be a patriot by hugging the flag. So that’s why I’m here."
On the economy
"A lot of people in our party right now are trying to pit different parts of our economy against each other. You know, it’s easy to sort of pick Boogie men. But…we’re not a socialist economy. We’re a capitalist economy. We’ve got to grow our economy, we’ve got to talk about how we can grow our economy and create jobs. We’ve got to talk about how we can move the country forward, not pretend that all these manufacturing jobs are going to just come back. I think we need to talk about the economy in a very, in a, you know, pro-jobs kind of way. Maybe you hear people doing that, but I don’t hear it as much as I think we need. I don’t think the Democrats honestly have a lot of credibility with the economy. And I think that’s one of our problems."
On the first debate
"I think that there are a couple things that people took away from the debate, a few things. One of which is, we do have a very talented party. You know, we have some really great perspectives up there. Some really impressive folks with great ideas. But there’s no question that there was a huge sort of jolt to the left. It’s like one of those moments where you’re on the Amtrak to New York, and all of a sudden the train just jolts, ‘Jesus.’ We all know that.
And I think the second thing that I saw … the big headline was just Harris vs. Biden. And, you know, like, I don’t know why Biden didn’t just say — and look I value him as a mentor and a friend, he’s a great guy — but why didn’t he just say, ‘Look, if I offended you, I’m sorry. You know, all I was trying to do was say that, in the Senate, as you and I both know, sometimes you have to work with people you disagree with.’ And then be done with it. Instead, we had this huge, you know, debate on stage, followed by all the media coverage afterwards, hashing out a vote that Biden took before I was born. That’s not moving the party forward. No, that’s not moving the country forward."
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On divisions in the party
"There’s sort of like two different groups I saw people on stage — there’s a lot of different ways you can break it down. But one group says, ‘Well, this is just so screwed up, we need to completely blow up America and remake it from the foundations.’ You know, and this is a sort of socialist wing and whatnot. I don’t think that’s right. I think America is a great country, it’s always been a great country. But we need an update.
There’s another group of people who say, ‘Oh, we’re just going to go back to the way things were.’ I mean, almost every other candidate who’s released a foreign policy vision has said that. They just said, I think literally every other candidate’s foreign policy vision is just, ‘Oh, you know, Trump’s breaking up NATO, we need to restore NATO.’ Well, NATO is not relevant right now, because Russia is attacking us in ways that NATO never anticipated. So that’s not good enough. What we need is not to completely undo our foundations and not to go backwards. But, like, an update, you know, we need an update. It’s like we’re running on Windows 95, and we need an update here. And I don’t see that view really represented, or I didn’t see that view represented on stage."
"I don’t believe that all wealthy people are evil, you know, ‘The billionaires are evil, and we just need to take all their money and give it to the poor.’ I believe that everybody should pay their fair share. And when Amazon is paying, I mean, did anyone pay zero dollars in taxes last year? How many of you use Amazon? All of you, right? Is there anyone who doesn’t, out of protest? I’d be impressed. No, we’re all addicted to Amazon, we all use it. And just think about the simple fact that every single one of us paid more in taxes to the federal government than Amazon. That’s nuts. I mean, I get the economic rationale. I’ve taken economics. But it’s just not fair. It’s just nuts. And that’s the kind of change that I think … people really on, not just both sides, sort of all sides of the aisle agree on.
But it doesn’t mean completely upending our economy. It doesn’t mean doing things that sound really nice, like a wealth tax — which I actually, like, fundamentally agree with on principle. But the simple fact of the matter is, it’s been tried, and it doesn’t work. Like, it doesn’t, you can’t, you can’t do it. So, don’t stick your hopes on these fanciful plans that the business community just dismisses because they know they’re not true."
On Trump voters
"They’re like, ‘Seth, what is the alternative? You know, you Democrats want to turn us into a social country, socialist country. You know, you Democrats want to be totally weak on national defense.’ I mean, and that’s why it’s so important that — I mean, I just think those positions are wrong, but it’s also just in terms of, like, having a viable political future here. I don’t think those are viable positions.
And so, my point is that … I think a lot of Democrats think, ‘You know, these Trump voters, what we need to do is we just need to educate them. And we’re going to get it through their heads that this guy is a bad guy.’ Okay, Trump voters are not idiots. All right, we don’t need to give America a moral education. They know that he’s an asshole … And they’ve just said, ‘Even though he’s an asshole, I like what he’s doing,’ or ‘He’s better than the alternative, so I’m going to vote for him.’
On moral critiques of Trump
"When we’re trying to win over Trump voters in the general election, we can’t go on this moral crusade. Because we’re just, people are like, ‘Give me a break. A) what about the Clintons?’ But what they’re really saying is, ‘I get it, I get that this guy is immoral. I’m voting for him anyway, because you don’t give me a better alternative.’ And there’s a real arrogance among a lot of Democrats in thinking that all these people are just like, like, stupid policy-wise, but also stupid moral-wise."
On responding to Trump
"I think what you need to do is, you know, like, punch him in the nose, and then move on. So, like, when he was complaining about the Mueller investigation being the greatest witch hunt in American history, I just said, ‘As a representative of Salem, Massachusetts, I can assure you this is false,’ and then move on. And then talk about how you’re going to take the country.
…Another way to respond to the ‘this is a great witch hunt’ thing would be like, ‘No, pulling my hair out. This is not true. Look at Wikipedia, like, Encyclopedia Britannica.’ I feel like that’s our response a lot. Okay, just calm down, calm down. He’s an asshole. He’s an idiot, like, just remind people that that’s the case. But see, here’s the other problem with the wrestling piece. It’s not just that it makes you look bad, it’s that it’s really offensive to his supporters. Like, if you just say, ‘Look, no, Salem, drop it, no, okay?’ and then move on, then people who voted for him are like, ‘Eh well that’s a good point.’ Like, ‘I kind of like this guy.’ Whereas if you go on this long, you know, moral crusade about what a tyrant he is and everything else…then how do you think that makes people feel who voted for the guy? And some of those people are the ones we need to win back."
On debate rules
"Is it the best process to pick the best nominee to take on Donald Trump when you’ve excluded — in the first debate — you excluded the only governor from a state that Trump won, and the only combat veteran — the only person who’s led troops in combat — you’ve excluded them from the debate stage? Is that a good way to take on Trump? I don’t think so.
…Look the idea of grassroots donors is a great idea in principle, but it’s all the people on the extremes who respond to the flashing-light emails. Not 100 percent, but mostly, right? And so — it’s true of the Republican side as well. So, if that’s one of your primary requirements here, you’re immediately favoring those types of candidates. I don’t know why no one ever talks about this, but that’s, like, very obvious here."
On Trump and the troops
"Not giving our troops a clear mission is not keeping us safe. Authorizing airstrikes against Iran, and then changing your mind 10 minutes later, is erratic leadership, not commanding leadership, from the commander in chief. Pushing us to the brink of war with Iran, where, again, we’ve got nothing in return, in exchange for Iran giving up the nuclear deal and starting to enrich uranium — that’s not keeping our troops safe. Making fun of veterans who have post-traumatic stress, calling them weak, is not taking care of our troops. You got to take him on on this stuff."
On talking about PTSD
"I don’t doubt if I’m the nominee, Trump will try to use it against me. But honestly, the reception has been unbelievable. And I get — in the last two days, two different people have come to me and told me sobbing stories about how just seeing me up there sharing my story publicly has inspired them to share their own struggles with mental health for the first time in their lives. And the last two — yesterday and the day before — were both non-veterans. I’ve had a lot of veterans from the Vietnam War tell stories in some of the veteran town halls I’ve been doing around the country. They said, ‘I’ve never told this since the war. You know, this happened in 1968, but I’ve never told anybody ’til I’m telling you today.’ And it’s, it’s really powerful.
…The reason that I haven’t done this until now is because I was scared of the political consequences. I didn’t have the courage. And part of my inspiration comes from a lot of veterans, a lot of younger veterans, including some really close friends of mine. Guys I served with in my own platoon, even, who have shared their stories first. And seeing the effect that just having another, you know, corporal of the platoon share his story and say, ‘I went to the VA for help’ — you know, you look around the room and guys are like, ‘No, come on, you did?’ He’s like, ‘Yeah, yeah. And it really helped.’ And then when told the story, they’re like, ‘Shit, I feel the same way. I’ve had those same kinds of dreams.’"
On whether he’d quit the race
"I can’t morally ask my team to work for me, my donors to support me and people out there on the ground to vote for me if I don’t think I can win. So as long as I think that I can win, then I can stay in the race. If I get to a point where I just said, ‘You know what, I still think I might be the best nominee, but it’s just not going to happen. It’s too late or we’re just not … raising enough money,’ then I think I have a moral obligation to get out."
"The fundamental issue is that nothing at the border is working. And you see that when you go there and really spend time there — not just do a press conference, two-hour visit. But like, I spent two days down at the border with a bunch of the candidates who were running last year. And we, you know, we spent a lot of time at Juarez, you know, saw things on both sides of the border, we couldn’t find anybody who said, ‘The system is working, and you just need to enforce existing laws,’ you know, or, ‘If you just simply stop separating families, everything will be fine.’ No, we need real aggressive reforms, both at the border, in our justice system throughout the country, and then also in Central America to address this. But if all we debate on stage is whether or not it should be decriminalized, I don’t think that gets us very far."
On women in combat
"The co-leader of my team was a woman. And one of the reasons that we made some, one of the reasons why we were such an effective team, is because part of our mission was intelligence gathering and assessing situations and working with Iraqi troops. And we would go into a house. And if it was just me, or just me with a bunch of fellow male Marines, we can only talk to half the people that house. So, we were much more combat-effective … I think I’ve been very clear about that. What I’ve also said, though, is that combat-effectiveness matters. And that’s the measure here. So, it’s the same position I have on transgender troops. Transgender troops, you should be allowed to serve. But we’re not going to make special accommodations for transgender troops, in the same way that we don’t, you know, if you’re six-foot-five, and you just really want to fly a fighter jet, I’m sorry, we’re not building an F 35 with an extended roof for you. We’re not."
On fellow Harvard alum Pete Buttigieg
Q: "Did you know Mayor Pete in college?"
A: "No. I think we hung out with different groups of friends. Not at all, I was not hanging out with the Harvard Democrats."
Q: "What was your friend group like?"
A: "Athletes. People who went out and, you know, had a good time."
On why the Marines is the best branch
"That’s one of those questions I don’t even really need to answer because everyone already knows. Marines are the best because the Marines is a service that focuses on values. If you look at Marine Corps commercials and compare them to every other service, you know, the Army talks about all the different jobs you can do and what it will help set you up afterwards. You know, you can be an Army of one with all the different skills you learn. The Navy talks about all the cool technology that you get to use. And they always have pictures of people with big, big computer screens, things like this, right? The Navy ships, you can picture in your head, right? And the Air Force always has guys, like, working on aircraft. And it’s like, ‘You can get a great job working in the civilian sector when you’re done.’
The Marine Corps never does that. The Marine Corps says, ‘honor, courage and commitment. If you believe in leadership, if you believe in — if you want a really tough time, then come and serve with us.’"